Using Observation to Get to the Root Cause of a Problem

When a company employs a Business Analyst, it’s done with the intention to have that individual investigate or examine problems that are occurring within its organization or to reach a goal. The company may have identified that there is a high amount of waste within its production line, processes are not being executed efficiently, or they simply want to increase their profit margin with their existing products or services. Whatever it may be, it’s up to the BA to sort through and figure it out. 

As Business Analysts, we have a number of tools and techniques to help us with this endeavor. One of the most effective is the Observation technique. Having the ability to observe individuals and processes in action is extremely valuable. Observing people and processes working naturally will help you understand the nature and efficacy of their function better, and it will help you get to the root cause of the problem you’re trying to solve. 

When using the Observation technique, you might discover that company training is outdated or less effective than presumed to be. Or you could find out that workers skip a step in the process, causing problematic outcomes. 

There are three types of Observation techniques:

  1. Active
  2. Passive
  3. Participatory

Active Observation

When performing Active Observation, you are observing an employee while he or she performs a task or follows a procedure. This live observation allows you to ask direct questions as the employee works.

When you have a window into a worker’s daily routine and processes, you can see problems as they arise and identify opportunities for improving efficiency. You may be able to identify small changes that have a big impact on the efficiency and quality of life of the person you are observing.

If you happen to hear this comment: “That’s the way we’ve always done it,” remember, that’s not a valid reason to follow a process and it’s a clear indication you have a chance to create value from this interaction.

Things to Keep in Mind When Practicing Active Observation

As with any form of elicitation technique, there are considerations that you should keep in mind. 

  • Reduced productivity can occur and is a drawback to the Active Observation technique because of your interactions with the worker.  
  • Your observational skills will get a workout because you’ll need to be alert and notice both verbal and non-verbal cues. 
  • Be careful not to focus on one specific element or you risk missing important information.. 
  • People tend to change their behaviors when they know they’re being observed. If an employee has a work-around for a task, she may follow company procedure instead of revealing their shortcut. That doesn’t help your examination of the processes. You want to know what that work-around is and why they do it. (On a quick historical note, the National Research Council identified this behavioral phenomenon as the Hawthorne Effect. Back in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the council studied workers at Western Electric in the Hawthorne suburb of Chicago. The experiment was originally designed to observe the effect of shop-floor lighting on productivity, as workers made telephone parts. The researchers found that no matter if the lighting was increased or diminished, workers were highly productive. It was concluded that the workers modified their behavior simply because they were part of an observational experiment.)

Passive Observation

When conducting Passive Observation, there is no interaction with an employee. You are there to watch the person work, take good notes, and jot down any questions you have so you can follow up later.

This technique is useful for those types of jobs in which timing is key. For example, a factory worker on an assembly line might be doing a task that enhances some widget that’s being made. Timing on a factory line is controlled to ensure that the number of widgets the company needs assembled within a specific schedule is achieved. Slowing down the line could significantly impact revenue.

If direct observation would be difficult or problematic due to safety, timing, or location, the BA also can record the employee’s actions. If the task is software-related, you could record the employee’s keystrokes and what’s visible on the computer screen. If that’s not possible, you could opt for video recording to view a person’s process and steps. All observations proceed only after the Business Analyst gets approval from the workers’ managers in the planning stage of your project.

Participatory Observation

While standard guidelines may not dictate such, I believe there’s a third type of observation: Participatory. This type of observation is similar to the Active Observation technique but also involves the BA switching places with the worker and performing the task. This provides a hands-on experience that enables the BA to better identify opportunities for improvement.

There are some cautions to think about when participating in an employee’s work. Like the Active Observation, you will likely disrupt the worker’s routine and cause reduced productivity.

What to look for

The Observation technique is extremely helpful in identifying problems and eliciting requirements.  Regardless of the type used, there are five key things to look for when observing:

  • Automation opportunities to increase efficiency and accuracy
  • Ways to streamline processes by removing or adjusting steps and handoffs
  • Ways to make the user or system perform more efficiently
  • Quality-of-life upgrades to make the process easier for the employee by removing frustrating or time-consuming elements
  • Opportunities to increase employee and customer satisfaction

It’s so crucial to properly identify the root cause of a problem so you can be sure to offer the best, most effective solution. While the Observation technique is incredibly useful in this endeavor, there are other elicitation techniques that can be employed as well! 

Interested in learning more about how you can use various techniques and tools to help you identify problems and opportunities? Then come learn more about the first course in our Business Analysis Process Series, Identify and Define the Problem. I hope to see you there.

– Written by Jeremy Aschenbrenner, The BA Guide

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