Seeing is Believing – Why Observation is Critical
You've probably heard this phrase before: "I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes." In fact, you've probably uttered that statement on more than one occasion. Sight is one of our most powerful senses and we rely on it heavily. We tend to trust it. But a funny thing happens on the way to shop floor. We sometimes forget to observe, and that can be a costly mistake.

The problem with problem solving is that we often forget to understand the problem… really understand it in the first place. We make assumptions about the problem and its cause and go about working on solutions based on our assumptions. Consider this scenario:

The widgets manufactured ABC Company were frequently damaged when they arrived at the customers' loading docks. Customers were calling about damaged widgets, and the customer service folks were spending hours upon hours fielding calls and arranging for replacements. The accounting staff was spending hours and hours issuing credits for damaged widgets. It was certainly a problem, so the production manager pulled together a team to figure out a solution. (Sound familiar?) They immediately went to work devising shipping containers and packing materials that would provide better protection for the widgets during shipping. The solution they devised cost a bit more than what they currently paid for cartons and packing, but it was far cheaper than continuing to replace damaged widgets. Of course, this would be less costly in the long run. Guess what? It didn't make a difference. Widgets still arrived damaged.

In your Lean efforts, be certain that you spend time simply observing at the start of any process improvement. Don't make assumptions about where the inefficiencies are and don't act on what you think you know. Watch the process. Study it before you change a thing or before you start moving to find a solution. Be certain that you really understand the problem. Rein in the desire to jump in and immediately try to begin working out the solution. That sort of false start always leads to finding the wrong solution, thorough though it may be.

Dedicate time to observe at the start and document your current state. Only when you truly understand the cause can you begin working on the solution. Only when you truly understand the problem can you define it, and as they say, "A problem well defined is half solved." Observe; understand; then act. In that order.