Leading Lean August – Observing Work


Also from the August issue of Assembly Magazine is my latest column of Leading Lean. The topic this month is the key issue of observing. I believe the true ability to observe is a under appreciated topic in lean. Sure we talk about it, and we even do it, but do we do it effectively. Read the whole column here: Don't Just See – Observe!

Didn't think you could weave Johnny Carson into lean? Think again. Here's the opening paragraph.

Carnack the Magnificent—Johnny Carson's psychic persona on “The Tonight Show”—would pull an envelope from a jar, hold it to his forehead and answer the question sealed inside. Then he would open the envelope and read the question. Unfortunately, implementing lean is often done the same way—as a solution in searching for the right problem to solve. It was funny on “The Tonight Show”; it isn't funny when it leads your organization to failure.

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Jamie Flinchbaugh
Jamie Flinchbaugh is an accomplished Entrepreneur, Senior Executive, and Board Member with more than 20 years of success spanning finance, manufacturing, automotive, and management consulting. Leveraging extensive operational experience, Jamie is an invaluable asset for a company seeking expert guidance with process improvements, lean strategies, and leadership coaching in order to transform operations, reduce costs, and drive profitability. His areas of expertise include continuous improvement, entrepreneurship, coaching and training, process transformation, business strategy, and organizational design.


  1. Good column, but I have to disagree with the idea of lumping MBWA with lean and real “gemba walks.”

    At it’s worst, MBWA meant managers just wandering around saying hi and glad-handing people. To be effective, it has to be “Management by Walking Around, Actually Standing in Place for a While, and Listening to Your Employees” (or MBWAASIPFAWALTYE) – catchy, huh?

    The old idea of an “Ohno Circle” applies — stand in the same place and really observe reality. If you’re constantly in motion, you’ll only get a superficial view of reality, one that is likely to fit with your current mental model of the situation.

  2. I’m going to have to post one of those ‘Yes’ AND ‘No’ comments to this – apologies in advance!

    1. I have to agree with Mark’s comment – too often I’ve seen real idiots thinking they’re doing a good job by wondering about. The fact is that unless there’s a purpose to the wondering (other than ‘working the rope’) it’s of little real value.

    2. But actually getting out from that cosy office means that you might just notice something other than a recursive formula problem in a spreadsheet!

    The funny thing is that so often when I visit a company for the first time, I see things that are just plain wrong – in everyone’s eyes. When I question the management about these things, the usual story is that “It’s the first time THAT’s happened / it’s really rare / etc”.

    Now either I’m a complete Jonah, and my arrival is like a bad omen on manufacturing everywhere (please don’t tell anyone on my prospect list ;), or if you actually go looking for things to improve, you’ll find them everywhere.

    When most organisations’ value streams contain more than 95% muda, I’m inclined to believe it’s the latter.

    So get out there, and get observing!


  3. Some managers and executives should just stay in their offices. First, no do harm. Oh wait, that’s doctors.

    At my previous company, I had a VP (of Lean Sigma, of all things) that I refused to take out to the floor after he acted like a total jackass out there. All he ever wanted to look at was the metrics charts, because that best approximated his in-office experience. He was above everybody and couldn’t stand to talk to the “little man” on the floor, or he would say something rude. When we had machine downtime, he suggested that we send the hourly guys home without pay to “teach them a lesson” as if that would inspire them to keep the machines running (as if it was their fault that the old machines broke down).

    The idiot did less harm by acting like a big shot in his office. You have to be careful who you encourage to go to the gemba.

    On the plus side, I had some managers and directors who WANTED to go to the gemba, they just needed major coaching about what to look for and how to react to things (which I was happy to help with).

    Note this is my FORMER company. It’s a major Fortune 500 conglomerate. I couldn’t wait to get out.

  4. Well I’m not sure where the disagreement is – and I hate to say read the article again. Here’s the passage:

    In 1982, the book In Search of Excellence popularized the concept of MBWA: Management by Wandering Around. The idea is simple: Get out and mingle. But collecting loose bits of information does not lead to the clear understanding that only comes from direct and deep observation and study. The concept of MBWA is not flawed, but it requires observation and analysis to make it effective.

    In a 600+ word column I can only go into so much detail. But the point is this. YOU CAN NOT JUST WANDER AROUND. You must have purpose. You must have deep observation and study what’s going on. MBWA by itself can often be described as industrial tourism. MBWA combined with effective observation can be a powerful approach.

    On the idea of bosses that don’t belong on the floor – I can sign up for that. A long, long time ago I had a boss who was in charge of all of materials. His office was in the plant near the shipping and receiving docks. To get to the admin building, which was on the other end, he would walk out of the building, walk along the building on the outside. The reason – he didn’t want anyone to actually approach him with something while he was out there. He should have just stayed in the admin building.

  5. Jamie – I guess it wasn’t so much a case of disagreeing, but hoping that would you amplify that point, that you just can’t wander.


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