The Observer Effect

Problems often are not all that difficult to solve. The most fundamental requirement is just to know what the problem is.


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Problems often are not all that difficult to solve. The most fundamental requirement is just to know what the problem is.

Most people running businesses don’t have even this much information. They have a sense of things being far less than ideal, maybe a sense that things are not working as well as they should, but they learn to limp along under the cloud of that feeling. They may even learn to do quite well, telling themselves that the way things are is the way things must be. All of us do this limping.

And that is part of what I found so thrilling and satisfying about the time I spent at Precision Component for this month’s cover story. “Thrilling” and “satisfying” may seem overblown, because you will read that what was accomplished in this shop was straightforward. The shop changed its procedures to function more efficiently. However, the biggest step toward this improvement was profoundly simple—the shop observed its own process to see what was wrong.

Just the act of observing is powerful. I recently encountered yet another example of this. A shop had a programmer who did good work, but did it too fast. There were mistakes. So the shop decided to make a change. Going forward, the shop owner said the programmer’s pay increase would be affected by how many mistakes needed to be corrected. In other words, the focus of observation shifted from speed to accuracy. You can guess what happened as a result. The programmer’s output became more accurate, changing right along with this shift of focus.

As the makers of machined parts, we know all about measurement. We know just how wasteful it is to assign tight tolerances to non-critical features. But then, away from the parts, we make the wrong measurements. Cycle time, for example, is easy to measure. But are there cases in your shop where unknown and undocumented time is being lost so that the documented cycle time can be just a tiny percentage less?

Measure the right things. If you want to make something better, just start observing it.

Again, observation alone is powerful. By observing, we decide what variables we want to subdue. Observing casts a light that burns away obscuring shadow, and seeing exerts a pressure that starts to push things in the direction they ought to go. If things in your shop or elsewhere are not quite right and you don’t know what to do, just begin by taking a close look.