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Observe the Now

You can observe a lot by just watching.

– Yogi Berra

Mindful observation takes effort and practice, but it is very valuable if you want to be a leader. It allows you to watch processes in action and look for small nuances and opportunities for improvement. For example, the wait staff at top-tier hotels do this every day. One waiter is always watching, looking for a shift in a customer’s eyes that says she might need something, detecting a growing line of people waiting to be seated, or checking on food that needs to be delivered. This allows the staff to anticipate and resolve problems, often before the customers are aware they exist. Being able to closely observe a situation allows things to flow much more smoothly.

The Simple LeaderThe benefits of observation extend to the manufacturing setting as well. 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 it. In the Lean world, this is genchi genbutsu—go, see, and observe.

High-end hotels generally have observation down to a science. It is 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. My table was at the side of an open atrium, so I was able to watch the staff in action. I’ve always been amazed by how the Four Seasons staff, 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 how they do it.

Amidst the flurry of wait staff running around, I noticed there was always at least one person just standing and watching. It was not always the same person, but there was always one just looking around the room at the customers and the rest of the staff. If a customer looked up and around, indicating they needed something, the observing wait person immediately went over to that customer, while another staff member took over the watching and looking. If a line started to form at the front of the restaurant, the observer 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.

To test my own observation, I looked up and to the side, as if I needed something. Instantly, a waiter was at my side. I asked what he was watching for, and his response? “Just observing, sir.” Yes, “just” observing. There was no “just” about it. Observation is a key to their exceptional customer service. I wanted to ask if process improvements were identified and acted on, but the language barrier between my server and me hindered our conversation.

When observing a process, be it on the factory floor or in the accounting office, it is important to mindfully observe without prejudice, staying in the present, without trying to identify solutions. Simply watch, look for details, and, when appropriate, document them.