Observe, with a Stopwatch

January 1, 2011

Observation using a stopwatch and clipboard is an unnatural act, never the first tool selected to support improvement projects. In this article, we will make a case for time centric observation, covering the why, when, what, how, who and uses. Observation for the purpose of gathering facts is the basis for all Lean improvement initiatives. The practice of Gemba (actual place) and Genchi Genbutsu (go see, actual place and actual thing) is at the heart of lean. Many organizations gain a competitive advantage by implementing a continuous improvement culture based on facts from observation, rather than assumptions and hearsay.

Why observe?

The short answer is: To find out what is really going on. In our minds, we tend to oversimplify tasks and processes. Most jobs are much more complex than we would like to admit. Because most tasks and processes have not been designed, and because we depend on versatile people to get the job done, we have little knowledge about what is really going on. On a daily basis, each worker must compensate for defects and missing information. These inefficiencies are buried into the process as wasted seconds and minutes, repeated hundred of times per day. Observing reveals opportunities for improvement, because observation reveals the waste. At a higher level, facts from observation inform the strategy and form the basis for improvement projects.

When to Observe

The best time to observe is before the start of an improvement initiative. During the course of a workday, the best time to observe is when the work is actually happening. For highly repetitive tasks, select a random time slot, and observe for one to two hours. For infrequent tasks, schedule the observation to start and end with the duration of the actual task. Observing the set-up time of a machining center is a good example of an observation that should be aligned with a task.

What to Observe

Even folks who regularly observe typically only do it on the factory floor, where the physical movement of people and materials and machinery is easily seen. However, waste can be found everywhere in an organization. There is also much to be gained in observing office processes, although observing with discipline is more challenging because the work is not readily visible. Since most of the work flow resides within the computer system, the pace of task switching is very fast.

While observing, notice the little things that are not so little: the assembly worker running to get a screw; the fabricator struggling with a dull tool; the electronics technician searching for a tool in a pile of tools; and the administrative assistant using an Excel spreadsheet to summarize information because the ERP system does not provide the report.

Notice also how the worker determines what to work on next. In one aerospace project, we found nine different authorities who could influence the prioritization of which job gets worked on next. At another company with ineffective flow control methods, each worker was “cherry picking,” selecting the jobs they wanted to work on next. Timely completion of a product assembly was of little concern to them, because nothing about the management system communicated the importance of time. Such observations provide important clues about the nature of the workflow, and reveal the impediments to fast throughput.

How to observe

Although not always possible, more than one person should observe to produce the best information. Even the observations of one person are preferable to no observations, so all methods are described.

With preparation and proper equipment, one person can observe. Sit and get comfortable for the 1 to 2 hour observation session. Use a continuously running stopwatch attached to a clipboard containing at least 30 sheets of a prepared form. Write using a pencil with a good eraser. Get most of the information, and ask questions only when necessary because questions affect the workflow, and thus the observed times. The difficulty is that one person, while writing, is missing many activities. One solution is to videotape the observation, with a running clock displayed on the recorded screen as a timestamp. Another solution is to observe without recording first, and then observe to do the timing and recording.

Observing with a two person team solves most difficulties encountered by the single observer. In the two person team, one person with a continuously running stopwatch is observing while calling out times and stating what is happening. The other person is recording everything on the prepared form, with pencil. Ask questions, if necessary to clarify the observation.

Use multiple observation teams when it is really critical to get it right. Each observation team is a two person team and does the same things. After observation, the teams compare notes. Without fail, each team will have noticed different things. This points out how much observation is dependent on the framework for perception held by the observer. Two different observers watching the same process at the same time will notice different things.

Observe with two people if possible, keep the clock running, and write down everything that happens. The result need not be perfect with split second accuracy, but observing with that intent will reveal what is truly important.

Who should observe

Observation should not be considered a lowly task. It is amazing how much the simple act of observation can inform management and strategy. Ever present are management questions like: What should we do next? Which process should we improve? What should be our strategy? Observation can yield subtle clues to inform such questions. Thus, observation can and should be done not only by engineers, but also by managers. At least once per week, executives and company owners should do MBWA, or management by walking around (Max DePree, Management is an Art). During the walk, the executives should notice things, and make notes in a pocket note pad. Later, such observations become the basis for meeting agenda items, observation assignments, and improvement initiatives.

Often, smaller companies retain consultants to either do the observation, or to facilitate observation. Observing properly is a skill that must be learned, and the consultant can help the client learn how to observe.

Workers can also do observation. For example, teams comprised of workers doing the same tasks can observe each other to identify work aids and efficiency tricks and common problems. The same team observes each of several workstations where workers are doing the same tasks. They will notice that each worker has a different set of little tricks and work aids for getting the job done.

Using observation data

Observation done to support a Lean improvement initiative generates detailed data needed to ground the initiative in facts. The recorded process steps and time intervals inform the process mapping effort, and produce the process data, such as cycle time (C/T) and change-over time (C/O) that are needed for the current state value stream map (CS VSM). Later, as the process is redesigned, the time and motion studies help establish time standards for each activity and labor content standards for each product. Ultimately, these micro-standards can become aggregated into the standard time to process one PO or one assembly or one unit of finished goods.

Observation is useful for improving office processes also. Recently, a two hour observation of a purchasing agent yielded a list of 20 improvements that could be implemented within a week to improve the process.

Observations also support technology transfer, where workers exchange best practices which the organization can institutionalize.


Do the Gemba. Go see, with a stopwatch and clipboard. You can’t go wrong.

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