Learning to see
So I recently have been invited to give a talk in a quality related event. Over the past several years, as a quality practitioner, auditor and consultant I have become intensely interested in the topic of "observation" as part of the auditing, improvement and problem solving processes.

In my experience, the fact that in organizations, due to different reasons, we become "blindfolded" to the facts and root causes is an constant issue. I have become interested in the way we learn to see, or to observe. In the way our thinking processes affect our perception and the need to calibrate and develop our senses to observe better.

As an avid birder and nature photographer I have learned how to observe better. I have studied the journaling methods of naturalist and scientist in order to better observe. I have taken a dive into the Toyota Genchin Gembutsu approach of "going and seeing", gemba walks and I have researched the Taiichi Ohno's circle approach.

I have accompanied managers in walks in their companies pointing a lot of things they do not see. I have found many non conformances in audit processes that the people in the company did not saw. I have develop a compact training for "learning to see" and validated in a client's training program. I believe there is still much more to share on this topic, essential to quality management.

So my point here is to ask to the community:
  • What have been your experiences (good and bad) related to the efforts of teaching others how to see, to observe with critical eyes, to question?
  • Have you succeeded in teaching curiosity? The idea of deep observation is linked to the curious nature of the observer. Asking why, what, when, how, etc. What are the main obstacles to overcome? Time is needed. But time is scarce. Can it be accelerated?
  • What are some "good practices" or "successful approaches" to teaching how to see in an industrial / real life setting? Using coaches and mentors? Performing training specific to observation? The use of checklist? Practicing observing recorded videos of operations?
  • I know how I learnt to observe. It took so many years, training and practice. Can we streamline the process? Can we make a good observer in record time?
For me deep observation is a pleasure and something I strive to become better. So any thoughts are most welcome. I want to make a case for deep observation and learning to see in my incoming talk and presentation and I believe some opinions from you, fellow quality practitioners, might complement my current view of this fascinating topic (at least fascinating to me).

I look forward to read your insights on this topic.


15 Replies
Hi Louis,

Thanks so much for bringing up the topic of observation. When I teach problem-solving, I spend time trying to convince my students to deeply observe the problem they are trying to solve. Observation is particularly important at the beginning of problem-solving (Define and Measure in DMAIC or P in PDCA) but still very important all the way through to completion.

I use a quote from Albert Einstein "If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on it, I would use the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes".

I also mention that Nat Wyeth (a Fellow at Dupont) Said that in order to figure out how to manufacture clear plastic bottles he observed the problem from all angles inside and out. He spent hours thinking about the problem and what he might be able to manipulate before he ever "touched" the problem and did an experiment. He also indicated that his brother, Andrew Wyeth, who was one of the foremost mid 20th century American painters, had unbelievable focus. He could spend hours observing his painting subjects and once when he was on a small island painting a barn on the shore, didn't realize that the tide had come in and was up to his waist in water.

So, I try to teach
  • focus,
  • time with a problem
  • see what makes sense
  • what is out of place, or doesn't make sense
  • look from different "magnifications"- understand both the big picture process from end to end and the tiny details of the area of focus

Norm Howe
61 Posts
All the topics you mention are important to a quality audit system. But I would say that the most important resource when establishing a strong quality culture is the workers.
When I first became a plant manager I knew that I needed to get out of my meetings and walk the plant more. But my subconscious asked, "Why go out and find more problems?? Our inbox is already overflowing."
It took me too long to figure out that my inbox was always going to be overflowing. I could never get everything done. My real job, then, was to prioritize what needed to be done and forget about the rest. And good prioritization could never occur while sitting at a desk. I had to walk the plant and experience it first hand without filtering through layers of management.
I found that the most important source of information was talking with the employees. I say WITH, not to, because the main point is listening; listening to their words, their emotions, and their body language.
There were a few people who did nothing but complain. I learned to value their complaints. They became my canaries - the canaries that miners used to have. Their complaints warned me about incipient problems before they blew up.
In a broad team event, we had the operator walk thru the specifics of what they did for each of the work instructions steps to pull out the potential failures and risks of defects to create an FMEA. We discovered many things that the work instructions omitted that would serve as additional confirmations to ensure the assembly was on the right path. Example would be, if you drove past the Shell station, you went too far and missed your turn. The notes to catch defects are integral to assembly instructions.
Great points Timothy. I definitively agree that we must teach observation and promote it. And seeing from different angles is a must.

Thanks for sharing.


I absolutely agree Norm. It is necessary to take the time. Your insight in talking with people is just spot on. What has worked to you in terms of listening to the employees? How did you encouraged them to speak and share their thoughts? What helped you to drive the conversation?

Thanks for sharing,

Nice example Philip, without observing with the operator this critical insight about what was missing in the work instruction would not have appeared.


Dear Luis,
This is an interesting question and one that I wish to address from a Japanese perspective. Japanese quality does not begin with the PDCA model - according to the JSQC Standard on Daily Management it begins with the SDCA model, more specifically, with the "C" or Check step. Japan takes a reflective approach to learning what is happening in the current sate (hansei) and then seeks first to understand and develop profound knowledge through a series of "cycles of learning" about that work. The initial cycles concentrate on making sense out of the basic requirements of work - eliminating obvious waste, clarifying procedures, and organizing activities so a rational approach can be made. This evolved description then becomes the work instructions of "standard work." Understanding leads to documentation. However, the first cycle of documentation is typically incomplete - it requires investigating all of the work conditions of operation to discover the true system of activities required for a process to perform robustly in the face of all potential variables that can create changes (e.g., the system of special causes that act on that process step). At this time, the process can be successfully simplified and rationalized based on known failure conditions, triggers of these events, as well as design, development, and specification of countermeasures when such failure excursions occur. At this point in time there is the possibility of stability and control in the work system. The SDCA wheel has been turned at least three times based on "seeing" the process from different perspectives and under the stimulus of difference sources of noise, as well as unique operating conditions. At this point in time the control of daily work is possible. It may be automated through digital sensor system additions, automated data collection, and even Robotic Process Control. These steps are all beyond the responsibility of workers for standard work and require management to exercise the PDCA cycle to extend budgets, change decision rights, and provide additional resources to implement such changes.

I the Western world we do not pay sufficient attention to this control function of SDCA nor do we use it for developing standard work or even implementing 3-S. I will be delivering a series of six monthly webinars for the ASQ Lean Enterprise Division (LED) that explains how this system works in a Japanese company. All QMD members are invited to join in these lectures to discover how the Japanese SDCA system works to establish a rule-based management system for implementing 3-S in daily work and assuring that management gets the best return on investments for digitizing their production systems.

Best regards,

Thank you for this great information Greg! I look forward to the webinar invites!

Thanks again!
Norm Howe
61 Posts
Hi Luis, The most important way to get the workers to talk is to listen. Really listen. We've all talked to people who use the time that you're talking to formulate what they are going to say next. They are not listening. Don't be that guy. Ask the workers how they are doing with open ended questions. Listen to their body language. Laugh. Follow up with their concerns if you can. If you can't, be honest. Credibility is everything.
The advantage to listening to the workers is that you multiply your eyes with theirs. Why rely on two eyes when you can have a thousand?
Dear Greg,

Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge. I absolutely agree. I believe it is a good approach the one that you share. Understanding thoroughly before anything else.

I look forward to your talks about the SDCA system.

Thanks as always for sharing.


Total agree Norm. I love the "thousand eyes" phrase. Absolutely right.


From Toastmasters- Watch as we recognize the 2020 Golden Gavel Award recipient, Julian Treasure, and listen to his presentation entitled, “The Secrets of Listening.”
YouTube Video https://youtu.be/mqTjjxhxjGY
I recently helped our HMA department figure out a problem. Over the past couple of months we had a customer complain about some of the units missing holes or assembled incorrectly. The supervisor gathered the department lead and all in the department for a meeting to discuss the issue. It was an hour before quitting time. They mapped out the process and discovered where the problem occurred in the process. The next week, we discussed possible solutions to the problem and the pros and cons of each possibility. The only thing I did was to make sure they didn't start comparing solutions and just stick to the individual solutions. The next week, they com[pared solutions and determined the best one to implement. The best part, even though QA was present, myself and the QA inspector, we did not have a vote, We provided some input and advice but had no part in the decision itself. The HMA workers figured this out for themselves and because of this, bought in 100%. All the supervisor and I did was keep them on track and gave some hints and advice. The workers actually looked for to the second and third meetings with enthusiasm. Couldn't have asked for better.
Dear Larry,
This is an excellent example of quality as a facilitator for full employee engagement in improvement activities!
Best regards,
Thank you for sharing your story Larry! A perfect way to develop the quality mindset, promote quality culture in general, and help employees to advance their problem solving skills. Empowered employees are productive employees. Following your example is where I believe management would be smart to concentrate the development of their own skillset.