I think folks in continuous improvement and practitioners of lean and six sigma would do well to learn and apply the tools of qualitative research and ethnography. Far too often, I hear a propensity toward the quantitative and not enough about the qualitative methods to solve real world problems. We need to shift the tide toward the qualitative. Why? Let me explain.
An Example Where Ethnography Trumped Quantitative Data
I was involved once with a manufacturing company where arguably the most important process step in production had 2 glaring problems: (1) it had become the bottleneck and (2) it was the process step responsible for the majority of the quality defects in the finished good product.
Of course the firm had gotten the involvement of its Six Sigma Black Belts to no avail. So, I stepped in. It took no more than 1 day to identify what the root causes were for the specific problem.
Here’s what I did: I observed the work of all 3 shifts. I looked for the following:
- What’s “normal”? In other words, what is ordinary? You see, nothing people do is “natural”, so everything you observe could have happened a different way.
- What’s obvious? How did a state of affairs become obvious? That’s a great place to start.
- I focused on the entire activity, not just its steps. The operative word here is “entire”. For instance, take the act of “Feeding your Family”. That’s the entire activity. But, within that there are rings of context, or sub activities, such as: prepare food; set the dinner table; invite everyone to dinner; eat; put away plates and dishes; clean dishes; clean table. Those are all rings of contexts that comprise the activity of “Feed your Family”. So, in observational research, it’s important to keep context in mind while observing actual behavior.
Want to know what I observed?
In this particular process, the operators have access to various tools to do their work. I noticed that operators in every shift I observed got bored at some point, fell behind, and then tried to catch up in order to make their production numbers. Even more, those same operators used different tools in order to do their work.
- We know that humans are the most curious creatures on earth. Why were they getting bored?
- Was there a reason why one operator used Tool A, but another operator used Tool B for the same task? Was there a difference in performance or in the end product?
Notice how these questions are likely not questions that a Lean guy or a Six Sigma Black Belt would even consider. But they should.
So, What was the Root Cause?
In combining good old fashioned qualitative research with the 5 Whys, I discovered a few things:
- When the process upstream slowed down, it impacted the productivity of operators in this cell.
- Then, they found themselves bored. Which led them to find other work to do in order to stay busy.
- But then when work came, they found themselves doing other non-production work and they had to stop and re-start on production work.
- Often times, they had to work faster to catch-up.
- It turns out that when the cell workers worked on non-production work, that work required other tools. But when they restarted on production specific work, they went ahead and used the tool that was already in their hand (we’re talking about an adjustable wrench versus a socket wrench). Both tools does the same thing, but a socket wrench is much easier to use and produces less fatigue. But, for non-production work, an adjustable wrench was required.
So, what was the countermeasure?
We got the line to produce based on Takt. Then, we standardized the toolkit used.
What A Lean Guy Would Do
Yes, a Lean guy would have arrived at the conclusion that I did. But, there’s a difference: My emphasis was on why something was happening and then finding the right solution for the problem. A typical Lean guy would go around finding ways to apply tools.
Ethnography versus Genchi Genbutsu
First off, formal qualitative research and ethnography – a specific type of qualitative research technique – is different from Genchi Genbutsu. The concept of “go and see” in the Toyota Production System is an important principle, but isn’t an exact analogue to Ethnography. There’s more. Much more in good, ethnographic research.
Basics of Qualitative Research
One of the best ways to immerse yourself in your customers’ worlds and experiences is through qualitative research. It’s more than just getting at consumer language. Good qualitative research digs deeper – getting at the concept, why behavior occurs, why perceptions exist, and what the implications are to the client’s business.
Qualitative research is interactive. The more others participate in the process and the progress of the work, the more valuable its outcome will be.
Qualitative research lets consumers and customers describe their own experiences and feelings. Where words fail, qualitative research can come up with the tools and techniques to enable consumers to express themselves in as rich a manner as possible – in multiple dimensions, unfiltered by predetermined rules, industry lingo or categories.
Qualitative research implies an exploratory, curious, and probing interview. It involves both direct questioning and more indirect forms of inquiry to get at hard-to-articulate topics or feelings.
Sometimes the best way to let customers communicate with us is to get out in the world and look at what’s happening. Certain problems demand it. Think about these scenarios:
- How do you learn what goes on when a young mom feeds a little kid? You could ask – and learn what she thinks about. But if you watch, you’ll see things she never “thinks about” or is conscious of. Things that may drive her decisions (buying decision or otherwise) without her ever “thinking about” it.
- Watch several groups of people coming into a fast-food restaurant. Where do they go when they come in the door? Do some groups stay together, while others break up? Who walks up to the counter right away? Who hangs back? It won’t take long before you see patterns emerge – patterns that consumers probably can’t tell you about because they haven’t stood around watching and taking notes. Patterns that hold clues about how the architecture, signage, lighting and traffic patterns of the restaurant affect the customer experience.
- What about a guy who’s just come to a new Web site that sells things for his business? Can he find his way around? Does he get lost doing some things, while others are a breeze? Could he remember well enough to tell you? He’s got preferences, sure, but do they match up with his actual on-site behavior?
- Or, what about the new factory floor worker? Can he perform his job and use the tools he is taught to use? Do he or she naturally find shortcuts to the established standardized work? If so, does that mean there’s a better way to do it? If so, why didn’t the more seasoned workers find the shortcut first? What prevented them from doing so?
Whenever the research is about a process, an interaction between people, or an interaction between people and something in their environment, we know we can learn valuable things by observation that can’t be learned by talking.
Sometimes the way to communicate is by keeping quiet and letting people show you the answer.