Industryweek 8061 Learning Observe Final

Learning to Observe

Jan. 13, 2015
As the human and technology content in processes increases, so too does the complexity of improvement.  This represents a tremendous opportunity to expand lean thinking and talent development. 

Back in 1999 the book "Learning to See" was published by Mike Rother and John Shook. The authors introduced a new genre of lean books that invited the reader to follow along and actually do for themselves.

People in organizations had been mapping out process flows for decades prior to the publication of this book, using everything from rolls of meat paper, yarn, push pins, actual documents, sketches and data on D and E size drafting paper, standard IT process flow charting templates, etc.

"Learning to See" introduced value stream mapping into the everyday vernacular of lean, complete with standard symbols, logic, and terminology that made it easy for teams to grasp the process, construct standard value stream maps, and discuss the findings with a broader community.

In 1999 this was a breakthrough book because it provided a simple but robust methodology to break down, analyze, and understand a larger process and its component parts.

Back then, the focus of lean was more about what people could visibly see; one could only see the principles and tools, so culture change was given lip service or avoided totally.

Observing is the disciplined practice of using all normal senses, taking note of what is going on around you, and how and why it might affect your thinking.

There is absolutely no doubt that organizations have benefited from value stream mapping. However there is a dilemma with value stream mapping and all other improvement tools that develops over time.

As methodologies become more commoditized and easy to learn, they also reach an abusive state where practitioners blindly follow the recipe without thinking. When practitioners become so obsessed with memorizing the principles, tools, and terminology that they can see, they become exponentially less observant. They begin to mimic or misinterpret the practices, principles, and tools of what they see, and fail to observe and appreciate the larger hidden behavioral and cultural underpinnings of success. They create the situation where the answer to all problems comes down to a limited set of principles and tools.  

Many lean practitioners are in such a deep principles and tools routine that it severely limits their capacity to observe. Their thinking has been molded into a tradesman's routine of a limited toolset and mindset.

Today, value stream mapping has gone viral in some organizations and is producing more waste than value. Many organizations are struggling with getting any value out of their value stream mapping efforts.

This is not a reflection on the authors - the world has changed a lot since 1999. "Learning to See" is a great lean classic book, but it's time to widen the senses because one cannot see the invisible kata aspects of improvement. Nor can one see the deep hidden waste in the complex networks of global transactional processes.

As the human and technology content in processes increases, so too does the complexity of improvement. This represents a tremendous opportunity to expand  lean thinking and talent development because the new opportunities for improvement from these changing dynamics are enormous. In a true Lean Business System, the new requirement is Learning to Observe (the visible and invisible factors), which goes beyond learning to see.

What is Learning to Observe?

What is the difference between seeing and observing? Taiichi Ohno taught himself the rigid discipline of observation on a regular and almost superhuman basis. He was known for standing in and observing processes in his designated Ohno Circles around the Toyota factory. Coincidently all the early Western time and motion study books also cover principles of observation in depth - including patience, finding the right observation points, and multiple observations.

Ohno was always observing and always in touch with his factory processes. Most people are not that aware of what is going on around them. The human senses (vision, touch, hearing, smell, taste) are powerful observation forces. Often our sixth sense and collection of experiences also provide insights to observations. Most people have a sharp set of senses but tend to use seeing and squander the rest. Seeing is instant, attribute-based, and requires the least interpretation and effort. People have a tendency to see with their eyes on autopilot, focused full speed ahead to the destination and becoming irritated at the slightest disruption.

It is this behavior mode (kata) when people miss a wealth of additional valuable information that might have significantly altered the course of their decision making. Technology is creating this sixth sense by enabling deeper visibility into processes and root-cause relationships.

Observation is a self-taught discipline, and the need for observation is driven by increased complexity. Police and firefighting employees, rock climbers, detectives and forensic scientists, martial arts competitors, and extreme hikers are masters of observation because they are always observing, anticipating, calculating, and planning their next steps. They know that a wrong move could introduce severe consequences or end their lives.

They are all equipped with the right tools; the difference is that they are looking beyond the physical evidence of what they can see. They are observing behaviors, playing back and verifying current conditions, checking for more clues and missing puzzle pieces, continuously clarifying and validating situations, testing and evaluating unknown conditions, anticipating and preventing disasters, thinking out of the box, scenario planning, and following up on leads to name a few behavioral patterns. 

There is no secret to observing other than time, effort, and awareness. Observing is the disciplined practice of using all normal senses, taking note of what is going on around you, and how and why it might affect your thinking.

It will not make one an expert extreme hiker or forensic investigator, but it will make a huge difference in behaviors, decision making, and actions. This is particularly true in complex transactional process improvement where the ability to calibrate problems with normal senses is difficult. It often requires a deep analytical process of transactional forensics due to the presence of reflexivity - circular relationships, interaction properties, and interconnectivity between causes and effects.

In essence, causes and effects are multidirectional and affect one another, so neither can be easily assigned as causes or effects.

Furthermore, causes and effects are relative at any moment. Technology provides the means of mining for hidden opportunities and expanding our normal senses. Observing involves the intersection of all of one's senses plus other capabilities to create the factual story. Being mindful means being aware of one's environment and its potential interactions with thinking and decision making.

Build Observation Into Improvement Kata

Organizations must evolve from learning to see beyond the obvious, to think about the questions that lead to a higher state of learning and innovation, and to correctly interpret and act upon what they envision in totality backed up by facts. Observing in a Lean Business System requires thinking that is deeply invested in situational scanning, analytics, hypothesis, predictability, creativity, and synthesis.

Observation is the first crucial step in acquiring new knowledge. Observation is the process of collecting information; it still requires reflection and synthesis of the data to put things into proper perceived perspective, and analytics to validate the results of observation.

The outcome of true observation is new knowledge. Observation requires the right patterns of behaviors and cultural disciplines to do this with the greatness of Toyota. The widespread development of these behavioral patterns and cultural disciplines is a function of leadership kata, which creates the organizational and individual kata. Learning to Observe is one essential principle in the next level of improvement kata.

About the Author - Terence T. Burton is President and Chief Executive Officer of The Center for Excellence in Operations, Inc. (CEO), a management consulting firm with headquarters in Bedford, New Hampshire and offices in Munich, Germany. This article includes content thinking from his soon to be released book, “Global KATA: Success Through the Lean Business System Reference Model™.”  For additional information, visit or contact the author directly at [email protected].

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