Ban the Stop Watch!

By Ron Pereira Updated on January 13th, 2011

Ban the Stop WatchAllow me to introduce Joe, the plant Industrial Engineer. Joe is a nice boy fresh out of college.

On this particular day old Joe comes popping out of his cubicle in his Dockers and white polo shirt holding a clip board and stop watch.

Joe then rolls out to the shop floor and spots his victim – a young lady about 22 years old named Sherry.

Sherry is a nice girl trying to do the best she can. She received a whopping 20 minutes training and was set on her way assembling product.

Blood Pressure Rises

The next thing poor Sherry knows old Joe is in front of her fondling his stop watch. He explains he is collecting data for a value stream mapping exercise.

Sherry has no clue what value stream mapping is and can’t take her eyes and mind off Joe’s stop watch. She’s also getting a little freaked out the way he keeps fondling it and smiling (his stop watch).

Joe goes on to explain, “Just work as if I’m not here. I am not timing you… I am timing the process.” Sherry isn’t buying it. She is a shy girl and is now so nervous her hands won’t stop shaking. Sherry is in great shape but begins a nervous sweat down the small of her back.

The next thing she knows Joe yells “START!” She does her best to assemble the product. Once she completes it Joe slams his finger down on the stop watch and quickly writes something down on his piece of paper.

This cycle goes on for what seems like eternity. While Sherry eventually settles down she never performs her job as well as she can. She is just too nervous and anxious.

Thanks, Sherry

Finally, Joe collects all the data he needs. He quickly thanks Sherry and rolls back into the land of cubicles. Sherry still has no clue what the data is for and wonders if she did good or bad?

Nonetheless, Sherry breathes and sigh of relief and quickly settles right back into her normal groove (if only he could time me now, she thinks).

While I may be over dramatizing this (maybe not) I’ve been Joe before. Well… I never fondled my stop watch!  But I’ve stood in front of many people with stop watch and clip board in hand.  And I’m sure I’ve been the cause of lots of high blood pressure along the way.

The Alternative

Then I learned a trick.

Instead of pummeling people with a stop watch I simply went out and over explained what I was doing and why I needed to collect some cycle times.

Then, with their permission, and their manager’s permission, I set up a video camera and let it roll for a few hours. I explained that I didn’t want to make them nervous standing over them with a stop watch and that I’d like their help collecting the data once the video taping was done.

Sure, people are still a little nervous for the first few minutes. But after 10 minutes or so they normally forget all about the camera and begin to work normally.

Involve them

Once we have all the footage we need I ask them to watch it with me. We collect cycle times (turning the little timer on makes this a breeze) and also talk about how we could improve the process. Most operators really appreciate this once they realize you are there to help them do their job better.

And once you get the operator’s to this point the battle is nearly won. Not only will they let you tape them again and again they will start to think as they work. They’ll think about their every move and how they could possibly do things better.

And while thinking is really good… the best part of this new process is people like Joe will stop freaking people out with all their freaky stop watch fondling.

What about you? Have you had any luck using video cameras? What about stop watches? No fondling I trust?

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  1. Michael

    July 1, 2008 - 7:05 am

    Here is Germany we struggle to use either cameras or video cameras due to strict work counsels. Do you have a suggestions?

  2. Mike Z

    July 1, 2008 - 7:22 am

    C’mon Ron. Are you going to join the crowd with pigeon-holing Industrial Engineers as stop watch toting knit-wits? Your trick is taught as the standard in the better institutions nationwide. If I see an engineer with a stop watch, I usually show up at their cube with one and ask them to perform a standard task repeatedly so I can get a baseline on how long I can expect it to take them.

    Kidding aside, I agree with the preference of video camera.

    Michael, I struggled to use a camera in a very strong union environment in the States. Once we thoroughly explained that we were not using the footage as a measurement tool, but rather a learning/training tool, we were allowed to proceed. They did, however, require the original copy after our uses were complete.

    Another funny story… one employee that continually refused our request for videotaping his area became paranoid that we had hidden cameras taping him. We had installed new heat sensors for our fire protection system and he could not be talked out of the idea that one had a camera inside.

  3. Ron Pereira

    July 1, 2008 - 8:06 am

    LOL, Mike Z. Yeah… I guess I get a little tough on my IE friends… in all seriousness some of the best lean guys I know are IE’s by training. Since I wasn’t trained as an IE I guess I am just a little envious! I mean I had to learn the dark arts of time studies the old fashioned way… on the shop floor with a clipboard and some poor girl named Sherry.

    @ Michael – I agree with Mike’s comments. It’s a tough situation indeed. Maybe try explaining what you are trying to accomplish and ask their opinion for how to go about it? That way it’s there idea. Let us know how it works out.

  4. Keith S.

    July 1, 2008 - 8:24 am

    In my company I am a manufacturing engineer and I have done a bunch of “time studies” as my company calls them. What we see alot is the people take the watch as a kind of race it seems, and there normal cycle times are sometimes cut in half! Which makes the manager oh so happy and thinks he can get twice as much done…wrong!
    I’m going to suggest trying the camera’s and see how it goes.
    Thanks for idea.

  5. Steve H

    July 1, 2008 - 8:24 am

    Great timing on the note – we just “stumbled” across the value of the video last week. It reminded me of watching a sports event – you focus on one player or area – but you “miss” the game. We found it much easier to see our problems (and there were many in this people intensive process) and also to see the probably root causes. We also saw (unfortunately) that our line was not balanced, lots of idle time, people tending to batch, lack of discipline. The good news is that by viewing the results with the team, they took the lead in implementing the corrective actions !

  6. Brian Buck

    July 1, 2008 - 9:00 am

    I work in a hospital so a camera is a bit tough to pull off without upsetting patients (and HIPPA). We have used it in some cases, but it is a bit tricky.

    If you need to use a stopwatch, I agree it is so important to communicate first and get their buy-off. I like to use humor as well and propose to wear a sash that says “HALL MONITOR” or tell them my name is Brian and not CLIPBOARD GUY.

    Being at gemba with a stopwatch has opened the door for people to appraoch me with ideas on how to improve the process I am timing.

    To avoid stopwatches, there have been great moments where people have timed themselves with tick sheets as well!

  7. Mark Graban

    July 1, 2008 - 3:31 pm

    I don’t think it’s right to vilify the tool – stopwatches or video cameras. Any tool can be used in good ways or bad ways…

    I’ve used video analysis as a method in hospitals for three years. I’m a bit believer in the method. But I think the reason it works is that I train people from the organization to video each other. They learn the types of waste and Lean concepts, then THEY do it. The process experts are watching and coming up with ideas, not some outside Lean expert who knows relatively little about a pharmacy. When you involve people and let them watch themselves on tape, it’s very powerful. They see things that are surprising… “I really do that??” They come up with improvements… it’s peer-to-peer, not “expert to peon.”

    That said, some teams have chosen not to use video because getting patient and family waivers would be unwieldy. They had to scribble furious on their notebooks… clipboard, no stopwatch. It was a bit harder to involve the employee being observed without the video, but we still worked together to let them debrief on what had happened.

    In the UK, the National Health Service uses video analysis in their Lean efforts, namely their “Productive Ward” initiative focused on nursing and patient care. You can see a video that shows some of that video taping at this link, although finding the exact video isn’t easy… make sure to read their instructions for how to find Episode #1.


    As always, great question for discussion Ron!!

  8. Ron Pereira

    July 1, 2008 - 7:03 pm

    As always, thanks for all the excellent comments everyone. Your comments and participation in the discussion make this blog so much better.

  9. mike wroblewski

    July 2, 2008 - 11:42 pm

    Hi Ron,

    As an experienced industrial engineer with a thick skin after literally thousands of time studies, I don’t get offended easily by this type of IE humor. I did laugh a bit when reading this post. Despite another popular stereotype, most engineers do have a great sense of humor. But Ron, come on now…fondling a stopwatch, yelling “start” and referring to the employee being observed as a victim? Based on your storyline, it is easy to point out some opportunities for improved communication and training all around. I have used the video camera approach which works well..good point. However the stopwatch is also a great tool when used properly and used with the respect for people principle in mind. Ask the 5 whys to the problem in your storyline, would a ban on stopwatches address the root cause of the problem?

  10. Ron Pereira

    July 3, 2008 - 7:12 am

    Great points, Mike. I may have embellished my story line a bit, OK maybe a lot in some cases. I’m an engineer by training too and did my best to pick on myself as well.

    With this said, I still stand by my position that put head to head the stop watch – even in the hands of experienced experts like yourself – will never be as effective as a video camera.

    We can do our best to explain why we are timing folks and ask why till the cows come home… but it’s been my experience over the past 14 years that humans either tighten up or speed up (as another commenter mentioned) when the stop watch comes out.

    I just saw the video camera in action in a recent kaizen event. It worked wonders (52% throughput increase after 2 hours of timing and study)… the operators are still talking about it. I dare say the same thing wouldn’t have happened had we broken out the stop watches and clip boards.

  11. Mike Wroblewski

    July 3, 2008 - 10:17 am

    I agree with your point that video recording as a tool has fantastic advantages over the traditional stopwatch time observation. I encourge everyone to use videos more often. It can be a better “team” tool over the dreaded “sneaky” IE with the fetish for stopwatches method.

  12. Ron Pereira

    July 3, 2008 - 10:41 am

    Yeah, you IE’s and your fetishes! Hee hee. Just kidding, Mike. I appreciate your excellent comments. Have a great 4th of July my friend!

  13. Mike Wroblewski

    July 3, 2008 - 6:27 pm

    Thanks, Ron. You have a great blog with outstanding posts that we all can learn from my friend! I am traveling back home today to spend the holiday weekend with my family. I hope you also have a great and safe 4th of July with those you love!

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