Think Lean: Stand to observe

By Richard Knust   

Facilities Maintenance Industry Lean lean manufacturing

Standing and observing allows you to see processes, operations, tasks and subtasks really work.

Tie lean methodologies and opportunities to metrics. PHOTO: THINKSTOCK

Tie lean methodologies and opportunities to metrics. PHOTO: THINKSTOCK

The “waste walk” is a common method touted within lean communities to identify waste and ultimately improve processes, but there’s another method: the simple yet not so simple art of “standing to observe.”

We become immune to our surroundings after 21 days (according to research) and miss seeing opportunities that would be quickly evident to an outsider.

We’re programmed to tackle challenges head on but often do so without taking the time to observe.

Standing to observe is not a new concept. Tiachi Ono, father of the Toyota Production System, would force his engineers to stand in a circle outlined in chalk on the floor and interrogate them about their observations, helping them to sharpen that skill.


So pick a spot within the operation and observe: people walking; their motions; their emotions and engagement; the process; material conveyance; the environment and working condition; and the complexity of process, operations, tasks and sub tasks.
As you observe, define and document the common lean wastes: defects; overproduction; waiting; not fully utilizing people; travel; inventory; motion; excessive processing; and unactionable information systems.

After you identify opportunities to improve processes and the work conditions of employees, your next challenge will be to implement sustainable change.

Metrics that matter will depend on who’s monitoring them. The person handling the process should easily understand aggressive but realistic and controllable metrics. The CFO will be interested in EBITDA but a receiver asked to help improve it by 10% likely won’t have a clue what you’re talking about. Instead, ask the receiver to monitor how long it takes to unload a truck over a period of days, then review the data together to establish a target that reduces the unloading time by 10 minutes per truck.

Muscle memory is another challenge to making change sustainable. It’s a condition that comes from programming the body to perform certain tasks in a prescribed manner, which becomes automatic. However, it may not be the best way to do it.

An employee asked to perform a task in a different way will likely revert back to the old method when not under observation or measured against a controllable metric.

Changing muscle memory takes time, so stand to observe, link an opportunity to an employee controllable metric, monitor performance and remember muscle memory.

It takes 21 days to change behaviour. Come back for some additional observing to ensure your suggestions are routine.

Richard Kunst is president and CEO of Cambridge, Ont.-based Kunst Solutions Corp., which publishes the “Lean Thoughts” e-newsletter and helps companies implement lean solutions. Visit

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This article appears in the Nov/Dec 2014 issue of PLANT.


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