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The Art of Silent Observation

by Andrew Quibell
August 9, 2017

The Art of Silent Observation

by Andrew Quibell
August 9, 2017 | Comments (4)

Some might think that detecting waste and finding inconsistency, strain and burden within a process is straightforward and easy to do. Not from my experience. Detecting and understanding the noises that can lead to machinery failure take work and practice to learn. The devil really is in the details and you have to look very closely – one missed detail can throw things way off track, or cause you to overlook critical clues or pieces of information.

You really have to take time to closely and silently observe the process to find these “gold nuggets” of information. Again, this might sound easy, but it is not. As simple as it sounds, silent observation really is a skill you need to practice over and over again. Only with plenty of practice will you get good at detecting abnormalities, even the ones that are supple, partly hidden or infrequent.

For many years when I worked in the high-volume automotive sector, I often chased ‘seconds’ within production processes. E.g. “How can I save seconds to increase output but still ensure the process remained safe, timely, efficient, and yielded good-quality products?” My greatest OEE losses were often the events under 15 minutes’ duration that were seldom really tackled. Folks tended to treat these minutes or seconds being lost as accepted inherent conditions of the current process. In other words, a treat-the-symptom, massage-the-process mentality was often applied and that lost time was seldom fixed until the CI or lean guy arrived to analyze the process. 

My approach and beliefs are to always drive the process at each step back to the original cycle/takt time first established when the process was launched. Then I look for additional gains to take waste out, confirm or create a Yamazumi chart and then look for where I could rebalance or eliminate seconds from the process or between team members.

My sketch and animated video walk you through some of my key learning points that are critical for doing silent observation properly. I hope they reinforce the message and the approach you could take.

When learning to see, go try it and practice, practice, practice...


The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
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Andrew Bishop August 09, 2017
1 Person AGREES with this comment

How timely! I just spent the morning with a nurse manager in (nearly) silent observation of the work on our inpatient rehabilitation unit.

Many concerns and lots of ideas had been floating around for way too long. We finally got agreement that we need to simply observe to truly grasp the situation and get beyond the stories about the situation.

It's not quite like manufacturing: An "Ohno circle" wouldn't quite serve us as the work moves around the unit; repetitive tasks are so variable from patient-to-patient that they can be almost unrecognizable; and takt time? fugetaboudit!  But, as I've always said, "We're different, it WILL work here".

We are doing a series of observations, some following specific staff roles, others following a patient through their experience of the various activities (value adding and otherwise!) that flow around them. Waste leaps out at us as we stand and watch. It is easy to see changes ahead that will lead to incremental change, relieving stress and reducing waste while improving patient experience and quality of care delivered.

Oh, and takt time? It's hard for healthcare folks to grasp the application but, as you know, the math is real.  One day it may be our guide!


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Mark Graban August 10, 2017
2 People AGREE with this comment

There's a time and a place for an engineer or manager to sliently observe a process. But, we shouldn't forget the need to also talk to the people doing the work about waste and problems THEY see and the ideas THEY have.

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Andrew Bishop August 10, 2017

Mark,  I couldn't agree more.  Engaging with the people doing the work, soliciting their ideas and concerns (and listening, taking note, and challenging them to develop and act on their ideas) is essential.

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Andrew Quibell August 10, 2017
3 People AGREE with this reply

In my next posting for September I will explain the techniques for performing 'Productive Inquiry' which is the follow on step after you have performed Silent Observation.

I have some key learnings to share on how you should approach talking to people after you have observed them performing a task or activity. Asking questions about what you have witnessed might appear easy, but depending on how you start that conversation it can result sometimes in a mixed, negative or confusing response. These situations you want to avoid, so I will explain how you initiate the conversation in order to obtain hopefully a positive reaction and positive feedback.  

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