Positioning of Observations
How do you position yourself to observe?
There is a famous episode of Taiichi Ohno drawing a circle on the floor and challenging to observe. Where to observe makes a big difference. Good observers know from where to see.
Positioning means a lot to observe. From where you observe, make a difference. I thought about the four positions;
Fixed position observations
Moving position observations
Random position observations
Distance position observations
Fixed position observations
The first type is fixed position observation. This is a term that is used in weather observations. By tracking the data from a fixed position, we can see the historical trend of the data. It is beneficial to understand the tendency of a place. And the location of the collection does matter a lot. There was this city in Japan that always recorded higher temperatures. People wondered why. Now we know that asphalt roads and buildings surrounded the location. It was a phenomenon called “Heat island,” which increases the temperature of that spot higher than usual. Yet, since the data has been tracked for decades, we can’t change that location.
In business, we track much information in the same way, and the location matters a lot. Our line was blamed for poor “First-time quality” performance in one situation. I compared the locations of the measurements. Our line collected data immediately after the product came out from the line. Others were collecting after the repair stations. Our line was doing far better if we collected the data from the same spot. Where the data comes from is an important question a manager should ask when they go to the shop floor. Different collection points will change the data.
2. Moving observations
The next position to observe is the moving observation. When the subject is moving for a long distance, the observer has to move, too. I will use such to observe the material handlers or the flow of the product. Personally preference but I always walk to do such observations. The reason is that if I use a cart or some vehicle, I get distracted by the maneuvers of the device, not the observations. The location where I need to focus on maneuvers is usually where I need to understand the safety or cause of variations. I will separate the driver and the observer if I need to use such vehicles.
For the flow of materials, I also follow every product pathway. I’m afraid of the height. But I have climbed eight-story high channels and fence stairs (outside) to understand the flow. I always find something more than just a number. There is always something that impacts the quality, the sequence of the flow, or an inventory hidden in such locations. A finding always changes the understanding of a lead time, which usually changes the Kaizen focus. It is worth my mental damage. But those are extreme locations. Just following the actual flow path always have a discovery.
3. Random observations
Another position of observation is random observation. Random in terms of location and timing. I believe that Toyota managers are excellent in this observation. They “pop up.” I have many memories of my coach, who randomly popped up. And they do that to see an accurate picture of the shop floor. If the time, location, and pathway of the managers’ observation are fixed, then, unfortunately, people will prepare accordingly. The site will be in order only at that location and time. The truth will be hidden. It is necessary to come at a different time & place to see the actual state. Of course, the randomness should have some hypothesis. Otherwise, it is a waste of time. Why are the lines acting differently? How well did my people understand the lessons? A question should trigger random visits to the shop floor, which should provide an answer.
4. Distance observations
The final position of the observation is from a distance. I was walking towards a line with a CEO. When we turned a corner, he stopped. He silently pointed toward the front. There, a manager was coaching a team leader. We couldn’t hear what they were talking about. But even from a distance, based on their attitudes, gestures, and the materials they were touching, we can understand that some intense problem-solving was going on. And they were not doing it as a show. That was a natural moment in a typical day. They didn’t know that the CEO was watching them. Since that moment, I got the honor of walking into many leaders and coaches who stopped and observed from a distance. Of course, the result of an observation is not always good. Sometimes you will see that people are completely disengaged or trash-talking. Such an attitude is visible from a distance. But then, it is the leader's responsibility to challenge the system toward a more positive culture. Many great leaders and coaches have told me they feel honored to run into such a moment. The more good work they do, they should run into such a moment. When that moment happens, they step back and observe from a distance. They will say that they are not wasting time. They want to see people focus more on their work than the boss. It is the best way to observe team dynamics.
One important thing I learned about any observation is not to disturb the subject. The very first-time study I did, I wanted to see closely how the operator assembled the product. I was in the way of the work. My coach immediately warned me. My observation was becoming the cause of fluctuations. Since that learning, the first step of observation is introducing myself. But then the second step has been to search for a position that does not disturb the worker I’m observing and the other surrounding workers. There are few spots where I can see the detail of work while not interrupting anybody’s work. A truly “Visible” line allows the observer to see the activity from outside, which needs to be carefully planned from the design of the line or the machine. But such a line is rare. I must carefully search for a place where I do not disturb any work.
Which location to choose depends on the objective of the observation. Or the positioning itself tells us many stories behind the observer’s thoughts. Where are you observing from? An important question.