Enhancing Observational Skills Is Crucial in Workflow Learning – Tip #213

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How many times have we seen workers in situations where they focus too much on following the process we trained them on, instead of using the power of observation and critical thinking?

The Broken Screw Story

A technician, who was having a problem with an equipment, frustratingly scans the manual again to see if she’s doing it correctly.   “I’m using the correct screw, but it won’t fit. What am I doing wrong?”   She tried to insert it again, but to no avail. She checked the supplier’s website for more updated information about the equipment but there was none. Her last resort was to ask a senior technician about it.   He then replied, “I used the other screw, and you have to slightly heat it up because this one, although it’s supposed to be the right one, does not fit.”

According to Roger Schank, one of the places where real-life learning takes place is in the workplace, “on the job.” He suggests that if we want our workers to learn their jobs, the best way to do it is to let them do their jobs. Work situations and issues trigger the worker’s critical thinking and creativity. It is the starting point for their investigation and their need for answers and solutions. In the story above, the senior technician knew how to work the screw because he had gone through the same problems and must have tried and tested several solutions. It even paved the way for him to innovate (heat up the screw, even if it doesn’t say i needed to in the manual). Observation is a key component in the process of diagnosing and fixing work problems.

Also, in a study by Magda Osman, evidence suggests that there is a positive correlation between observation-based learning and problem-solving. People learn better and faster, not through mastery of procedures, but rather by trial and error and observation. Just like what we realized in the Broken Screw Story.

3 Impact Areas Of Observation in the Workplace

1 The modern workplace is full of distractions and it’s easy for workers to lose focus and to just go with the flow in order to complete their tasks. Critical thinking and time for observation are often set aside in favor of deadlines. Observation is crucial in identifying gaps, breaches or inconsistencies in the workflow. It is how workers are able to assess which problem areas to immediately fix, solve, and improve.
2 Being fully aware and deliberately paying attention to the different elements of work processes, deeply understanding its meaning and recognizing plausible risks, errors, and hazards are essential observational skills in the workplace. It aids the workers to think ahead of solutions to problems before they happen. It trains their mind to be adept at solving both expected and unexpected work issues.
3 Observation is a powerful skill that can be scaled. It can be measured based on the variances of results and on how well workers adjust to changes in their work and its environment. Being diligent, observant workers highly impact their productivity, safety and company costs as it lessens, if not eliminate, the possibility of mistakes, accidents, and errors while doing their assigned tasks.


Without good observational skills, the potential to miss important steps and the risk of repeated errors are high. It affects the quality of workers’ output which can be costly to the organizations they are in. We have to train our workers, not just to be mere followers of procedures and processes, but also to be keen observers, self-reliant thinkers and creative problem-solvers.


Ray Jimenez, PhD., Workflow Learning
Roger C. Schank, What We Learn When We Learn By Doing
Magda Osman, Observation Can Be as Effective as Action in Problem Solving

Ray Jimenez, PhD
Vignettes Learning
“Helping Learners Learn Their Way”