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The power of observation

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in Leaders & Managers,Workplace Communication

Firsthand observation is to business health as preventive care is to personal health, say two businessmen and keen observers.

Building on the Japanese philosophy of genchi genbutsu, or “go and see,” they break down personal observation into five steps:
  1. Get ready to learn. You have to know what you’re looking at to take advantage of it.

    In a 1980s exchange of benchmarking visits between U.S. and Japanese automotive suppliers, the Americans hadn’t observed their own factories first, limiting their opportunities to compare.

    On the other hand, the Japanese brought along engineers bearing tape recorders and cameras. Although the Americans barred the cameras, they later realized that by replaying tapes, their competitors could time the machines’ frequency. And the tour was half over before they noticed that Japanese industrial artists were making detailed drawings of equipment.

  2. Look for problems. Seek out problems your customers face. Disney posts “imagineers” in its theme parks to watch how visitors behave, so it can design better entertainment. Carmakers also use Disney’s parking lots, which led to lower tailgates after observers noticed visitors struggling to lift baby strollers in and out of their trunks.

  3. Go see it yourself. Before the Civil War Battle of Fredericksburg, Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson personally visited the front lines and made adjustments that kept the Union army at bay.

  4. Ask why. The main tool of firsthand observation is asking “why,” until you get to the bottom of something. Example: Why do people avoid long lines? Because they’re boring. Why are they boring? Because there’s nothing to do for 30 minutes. Why are people waiting 30 minutes, and why is there nothing to do?

  5. Train other scouts. Tom Taylor, as an executive for The Home Depot, showed how useful front-line visits can be. His team members crunched data but didn’t know how customers and clerks interacted, so he began weekly “store walks.” On an early walk, he listened to a discussion about nine vacuum cleaners and turned his attention to the store’s 26 types of carpet stain remover, seven of which claimed to be best for pet stains. How, he asked, would employees counsel a customer who wanted the best product to remove pet stains?
Lessons: Watch, listen and ask why.

—Adapted from “See for Yourself,” Tim Laseter and Larry Laseter, strategy + business.

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