Home > The Lean Post> Observe Without Expectations
The Lean Post
Sharing how the world is making things better through lean.

Observe Without Expectations

by Eric Ethington
April 1, 2014

Observe Without Expectations

by Eric Ethington
April 1, 2014 | Comments (4)

“Accuracy of observation is the equivalent of accuracy of thinking.” - Wallace Stevens

Observation, my mentor once told me, is the foundation of kaizen. In the 16 years since that discussion I’ve come to appreciate how much wisdom there was in that simple statement. Likewise, if you look in the books and literature on Lean there is an undeniable emphasis ongoing to the gemba and observing first-hand. Sounds simple, right? Maybe not.

In 2002 I was working at a major tier-1 automotive supplier when our senior vice president (of almost everything) came to me with the question, “What should I be looking for when I go to the gemba?” The good news is this personlet’s call him John - would go to the gemba. As a former operations guy he arrived at the headquarters building around 6:00 am on the mornings he was in town, yet spent a majority of his time at our 200+ “gembas” around the world. 

The bad news was, if my team didn't answer this question carefully, we could create a check-list mentality. If your operation had everything on the list, it was Lean; if something was missing, it wasn’t. Nevertheless, John had asked a very good question, “What should I be looking for when I go to the gemba?”

As human beings, our tendency towards selective attention is well documented. Many of you have seen the video of this classic selective attention experiment from 1999 involving basketball players. Without revealing too much, the experiment shows we can be heavily influenced to see what we are primed to see. If you believe Lean is U-shaped cells, then U-shaped cells or the lack of them is what you’ll notice. If you think Lean is 5s, again, the state of the gemba's 5s is what you’ll notice.  

So, back to John. We have a senior leader who wants to support the organization's lean transformation. He knows this involves him going to the gemba and observing. Give John a specific list of things to look for and you may bias him to see only items on the checklist. Provide John with little or no direction and you run the risk of some outside force, last night's showing of Under Cover Boss for example, biasing what he sees.

Let's bring this closer to home. Forget about John, that was 12 years ago. The point is, if John's observations can be biased, so can yours. We all require expectations to help us "see".

When walking your gemba, what do you look for? It shouldn't be a list of tools. In 1998 Learning to See taught us that there is more to Lean than tools. The tools comprise a system and even deeper, there is a way of thinking behind that system. Can you articulate your expectations in terms of the thinking behind a holistic system? Think about it. This is a healthy exercise before you observe your next gemba. 

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
Keywords:  gemba,  leadership
Was this post... Click all that apply
17 people say YES
20 people say YES
12 people say YES
9 people say YES
Related Posts
4 Comments | Post a Comment
Ken Hunt April 01, 2014
4 People AGREE with this comment
When using the Gemba as a teaching tool, Taiichi Ohno said it best:

"Don't look with your eyes, look with your feet"

"Don't think with your head, think with your hands".

Practicing these two quotes should eliminate the checklist mentality.

Reply »

Michael Lombard April 02, 2014

I totally agree that we should not have a checklist mentality or a focus on tools when doing gemba walks.  There was an episode of the great TV show "The Wire" when one of the talented detectives says you have to have "soft eyes" when analyzing the crime scene.  The same concept applies to gemba walks:  having "soft eyes" that can absorb the environment from a broad perspective first, then start to spot patterns/abnormalities/opportunities, and only then start to narrow in our focus.  That's one form of gemba walk, and it's especially helpful when trying to identify waste and just begin to grasp the current condition of a system.

There's also the gemba walk as PDSA variety.  In this scenario, maybe we've developed a hypothesis about what's causing a problem or what an appropriate countermeasure might be.  By doing a quick "go & see" PDSA cycle we can test our hypothesis through direction observation.  This type of gemba walk is more narrowly focused than the "soft eyes" version discussed in the previous paragraph, but I think the same logic of avoiding a checklist mentality or focus on tools applies regardless.

Reply »

mohamed April 17, 2014


I agree with you regarding for observe without expectations
is better than with gemba walk check list but from my point of view it will be
under the condition of experience exist. As you know Lean is practice and the
more practice you dare doing the more flexible and expert you will be so your
eyes became like waste hunter, But in other hand I don’t think it will better for
the small or medium lean experts which they will need checklist not to only
follow but also to open them mind to detect what did not they expect.

Reply »

Ken Hunt April 23, 2014

Checklists can be dangerous. Instead of actually seeing what is going on at the Gemba, more attention is payed to checking the boxes.

This is why I funamentally disagree with using checklists during 5S non-advocate assessments. Again, instead of having a conversation about what is going on, the concentration is dedicated to the checklist.

I would also say that using a checkklist for newer Lean experts could be counter productive. I would much rather they learn by observing than by checking boxes. And lastly, checklists can be interpreted as boundries, which limit creative thinking.


Reply »

"Too Busy to Walk the Gemba"
Adding Flavor to the Gemba Using SALT
Clear Mind, Better Work
Do You Own Your Lean Learning?
Please include links as plain text URLs only. Do not copy and paste directly from a web page or other document. Doing so may pick up additional HTML that will not function here.
URLs will be converted to functioning links when your comment is displayed on the site.
Here's an example:
See this article for more details: https://www.lean.org/whatslean