You can observe a lot by just watching.
– Yogi Berra
Mindful observation takes effort and practice. Watch the process in action and look for the small nuances and opportunities for improvement. The wait staff at top tier hotels do this every day. One waiter is always just standing and watching – looking for the shift in a customer’s eyes that he might need something, a line growing with people waiting to be seated, or food that needs to be delivered. Then action is taken.
Taiichi Ohno had an exercise for his engineers and students where he’d draw a circle on the factory floor and tell them to stand in it and simply observe for a half hour. If they came back and reported that they didn’t see anything to improve, he’d send them back out.
The Ohno Circle exercise is very powerful and can be used on the factory floor, in the finance department, or even at home with the kids. In fact, it’s probably even more powerful in areas where processes are not visible or visibly defined. Just stand and watch. Resist the temptation to immediately jump into action. Think about and record what you’ve observed. Then improve. In the Lean world this is genchi genbutsu – go, see, and observe.
High end hotels generally have observation down to a science – it’s a core component of how they deliver great service. Several years ago I was having a quiet breakfast at the Four Seasons in Bangkok after arriving late the previous evening after a long day of traveling from the U.S. My table was at the side of the open atrium so I was able to watch the staff in action. I’ve always been amazed by how the staff at their hotels – whether at the restaurants or elsewhere – will be at your side exactly the instant you need them, but are also never annoyingly intrusive. Now I know.
Amidst the flurry of wait staff running around, I noticed that there was always at least one person just standing – and watching. Not always the same person, but there was always one just looking around the room at all the customers – and the rest of the staff. If a customer looked up and looked around indicating they needed something, instantly that wait person went over and another person took over the watching and looking. If a line started to form at the front of the restaurant, the person would head over and help with the seating. If another member of the wait staff needed help, he or she would have it within seconds. And someone else would take over the watching.
Someone was always standing, observing, and watching.
So I looked up and to the side, and instantly a waiter was at my side. I asked what he was watching for, and his response? “Just observing, sir.” Yes, “just” observing. That “just” has become one key to their exceptional customer service. I wanted to ask if process improvements were identified and acted on, but that’s when the language barrier kicked in.
When observing a process, be it on the factory floor or in an accounting office, it is important to simply mindfully observe without prejudice, staying in the present, without trying to identify solutions. Simply watch, look for the details, and, if appropriate, document.