Vow of Silence

I was under the weather the other week, but decided to push through and ensure a couple of key training sessions I was giving occurred as scheduled.  By the end of them, I had lost most of my voice and was considerably worse off than when the week had begun.  So I decided that my first priority was to rest my voice, and so I took a self-imposed “vow of silence” for a 24 hour period.

This was an interesting experience.  First of all, it was difficult to even remember not to talk sometimes!  Cesar MillanBut it also reminded me of how much we rely on words to get our points across or get things done vs. other methods.  For example, when the dogs went to go bark at the mailman, you couldn’t yell at them to sit and be quiet.  You had to find another method not involving your voice that they would understand.  Usually, it was a much calmer method than yelling.  Cesar Millan would be proud!

Also, it meant when sitting at the dinner table I was able to simply listen to the conversation between my wife and kids, instead of trying to think about how I was going to respond.  Or when we were playing a board game I could just sit and watch as the kids took their turn and enjoy how much they were learning and growing instead of trying to make small talk.

How does all this relate to Lean thinking?  Well as I sat there in my small world of silence and ridiculous hand gestures, my mind drew parallels to two concepts – standing in the Ohno circle and listening to the Voice of the Customer.

Standing in the Ohno Circle

As Yogi Berra once said, “You can observe a lot by just watching”.  Early on in my lean journey I remember reading about or hearing about the concept of standing in the Ohno circle until you were able to see waste and come up with improvements to eliminate it.  WhOhnoen we were first learning about what waste was, we went out to the machines and observed what was going on, coming up with examples of all the types of waste.  We were developing our capability to see, and there were plenty of waste examples to go around.  But you didn’t interject yourself into the process, didn’t go fix something you saw right then and there without understanding the cause – you simply observed and built a deeper understanding of how the process functions.

It is a little bit harder to stand in a circle in an office environment.  If you draw a circle in the hall, you’ll probably write down lots of examples of copier waste, walking back and forth between meetings, having to get up to get a drink of water or hit the restroom… things that may not be all that useful for driving results with lean transformation.  But I’ve found it very effective if I actually sit in with someone in their office and simply watch them do work and have them describe what they are doing, asking “why?” every once in a while.  Even simple tasks such as observing them writing an email and asking why they need to write it to get information they should already have reveals gaps in the business process.  Or perhaps you shadow someone for a few hours, sit in the meetings they sit in, and record all the forms of waste you see, including how many meetings don’t result in any actual actions or decisions.

Usually if you are standing in a circle on the shop floor, there is room somewhere for you to be out of the way and slightly more inconspicuous than if you are sitting in a cube looking over someone’s shoulder.  It can be a little uncomfortable at first, both for you and the employee.  But this is where the work is done, this is where the time is spent, and this is where the waste occurs that you need to be identifying and striving to eliminate.  So maybe it should be difficult and uncomfortable – if it was easy to see, someone probably would have already improved it.

Listening to the Voice of the Customer

What is value-added through the eyes of the customer?  Knowing this is what drives us to improve our processes, because everything that is not value-added in the eyes of the customer is waste – and why would we want to keep producing that?  It isn’t always easy to hear the voice of the customer, because we don’t always listen when they talk to us.  Many times I have seen people receive feedback from a customer but during the discussion defend the way things are done currently, tell them why they can’t give them what they want, offer potential band-aids to some of their concerns, and even direct the problems back onto the customer and try to blame the problems on them and their demands!

Is some of that justifiable?  Sure, maybe, in some sense.  But the key here is that obtaining the customer’s feedback in order to understand what they are thinking, what they value, and what they wish you could deliver to them shouldListening be the objective of the conversation.  Shelve the notion that you need to deliver a solution to them that very minute.  Shelve your pride and try not to defend why things are the way they are.  Try not to interject yourself into the conversation other than to steer it and to ask questions that probe deeper into their needs.  Remember that your goal is to listen, to hear, and to understand, and to take that feedback, reflect on it, and determine if there are reasonable things you can do to improve on what the customer values.


It’s nice to have my voice back now, but maybe I’ll have to schedule myself to take a short vow of silence every once in a while just so I remember how to listen.



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