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Megan Wallin-Kerth


The Power of Observation

Watch and learn

Published: Monday, May 22, 2023 - 12:03

The ability to observe relationships, patterns, and environment may be deemed a “soft” skill, but there’s plenty of hard data supporting the power of observation in the workplace. After all, observation is the sometimes overlooked first step in the scientific method: Make an observation, and from there you can ask a question, form a hypothesis, and close in on a solution.

Observant people produce quality work—by catching their own mistakes

From planning to implementation, people who are deemed good observers also produce high-quality work. They have the skills to ask the right questions and notice important details—resulting in less waste, whether that’s time, money, excess production, or other valuable company resources.  

In college, I worked at the Writing Center at Highline Community College. The Writing Center was part of the larger tutoring center, and students could sign up for 25- or 50-minute sessions. During those appointments, we would read over their assignment guidelines and then delve into reading their paper. We’d take notes, discuss what we noticed, and ask them questions when there was need for clarification.

While assessing each assignment’s strengths and weaknesses, we used a “spiral” method when consulting with fellow students on their papers, starting with the most significant issues within the paper and working our way down to the least. First, did the assignment match the assignment guidelines? Second, how well was it organized? And so on and so forth, working from the most important aspects of writing to the lesser. It required focus, and the objective was to have the writer (who would read their paper aloud, if they were comfortable) view their paper through a more objective and thorough lens. Furthermore, we were focused on finding patterns, not underlining every little flaw.

It often came as a surprise to most consultees that the very last thing we checked was grammar—unless it affected the reader’s ability to understand what was being said. But our job wasn’t to edit their papers or to dig in and underline every instance of strange syntax errors or typos. Mainly, we weren‘t trained to intervene or edit but to observe, and in doing so we would help writers learn how to observe their own weaknesses and eventually fill in those gaps on their own. Our motto was, “We create better writers, not just better papers.”

In essence, the long-term effects of observation helped students acquire something deceptively simple: the ability to see what they originally had missed. Students who came in regularly became proficient in finding their own mistakes and patterns, immediately recognizing when their thesis didn’t remotely address the question posed in their assignment requirements, and even correcting their own typos and grammatical errors.

For students who came in only once or twice, expecting us to go through their papers with a red pen and underline misspellings, the improvement was less noticeable. However, for repeat attendees, we began to spend less time pointing out the same mistakes. Over time, we saved considerable hours and effort while thwarting frustration. After all, when people know what to look for, they can set internal checks and apply consistent standards. (Elements of quality assurance can be found in nearly every aspect of life and work.) It isn’t about a one-time check; it’s the process. For that, people need to apply consistent skills.

Lean, mean observing machine

Looking at the five principles of lean, it’s easy to see why observation is a key to maintaining quality in production as well as building strong time-management skills. Whether you’re assessing your business for value, creating flow, or setting professional standards, you need to be able to tune into the environmental and social cues around you. Like Taiichi Ohno’s original engineers, told to “stand in the circle” and “watch” how a problem was being solved to learn how to come to their own solution, people continue to need time and space to simply observe. At its core, the Ohno Circle is an exercise in observation.

Often, the key difference between talented individuals who succeed and those who merely maintain a status quo despite being highly skilled is their ability to take in the information needed to excel in their profession. But just how does one become a good observer?

Reducing distractions and taking notes

Some tips from the MIT Office of Digital Learning include keeping an idea log and reducing distractions to increase attention to detail. The article refers to the gorilla experiment, which is covered more extensively in the book The Invisible Gorilla by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons (Harmony, 2011 reprint).

Before continuing, take a moment to put your own observation skills to the test.

Watch the video below on selective attention and attempt to follow the instructions written at the beginning in white text.

As you can see, six people are divided into two groups in this experiment: three are wearing black shirts, three are wearing white shirts. The audience is asked to count the number of times the participants in white shirts pass a basketball to one another. However, not long after the passes begin, a person in a full gorilla suit walks through. Most viewers, intent on the task of counting ball passes, will completely miss the gorilla—hence, the adjective within the book title.

And that’s the tip of the iceberg. Selective attention is cousin to the far more common distracted attention, or the result of multiple, chronic interruptions.

With an idea log, employees can take notes of what they notice, want, or question, which may free their mind to notice the “gorillas” in the room. And by reducing distractions, whether they are of an internal nature (anxiety, uncomfortable clothes, lack of ergonomic workspace, poor sleep the night before) or external nature (work environment, outside noises, children, pets), careful planning and accommodations should be made to reduce as many distractions as possible to allow minimal interruptions. For more on reducing distractions, read our former article on the topic.

The cost of interruption

A 2013 study covered by The New York Times reported that not only are interruptions annoying, they are also dangerous. In tests with a control group, alert group, and a distracted group, those in the group that endured multiple disruptions scored 20-percent lower than the control group and were vastly less prepared to answer questions than the group members who were told they might be interrupted but were instead given time to think. (That group actually improved!) In essence, interruption compromises your performance, but being prepared improves it.

Developing good observation skills is a task that requires both internal and external controls. And while there’s no easy, step-by-step tutorial, reducing barriers to focus and making note of patterns in your work—from environment to processes and production—are some of the best investments you can make toward quality management and maintenance.


About The Author

Megan Wallin-Kerth’s picture

Megan Wallin-Kerth

Megan Wallin-Kerth is a Quality Digest editor and writer.