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William A. Levinson


Many See, Few Observe

We must train ourselves to recognize the waste around us

Published: Thursday, November 3, 2022 - 11:03

‘You see, but you do not observe,” Sherlock Holmes told Dr. Watson in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s (1891) A Scandal in Bohemia. Taiichi Ohno, who developed Henry Ford’s lean production system into the Toyota Production System, told managers to stand in a circle on the shop floor and observe everything that happened there. If people who try this exercise see but do not observe, neither they nor their organizations will gain from it. History shows that countless people, possibly tens of millions, have overlooked breakthrough improvement opportunities that are obvious to anybody who knows what to look for.

I was recently doing some research for a book that asserts waste is built into many jobs, with the result being workers getting lower wages, employers reaping lower profits, and customers paying higher prices. There are, for example, videos of roofers carrying tiles up ladders even though automated equipment is available for this exact purpose. The treadmill crane, in which people walk on a treadmill to raise loads instead of carrying them up ladders, has been around for centuries. I wanted to include a picture, and I found the one in figure 1 (Construction of the Tower of Babel in the Maciejowski Bible). I admit that I didn’t see the success secret hiding in plain view the first time I saw this because I was looking for a treadmill crane rather than something even more important.

Figure 1: Treadmill crane, 13th-century illustration

Frederick Winslow Taylor1 wrote of Frank Gilbreth’s development of a nonstooping scaffold to deliver bricks at waist level so the masons didn’t have to pick them up from the ground: “These scaffolds are adjusted, as the wall grows in height, for all of the bricklayers by a laborer especially detailed for this purpose, and by this means the bricklayer is saved the exertion of stooping down to the level of his feet for each brick and each trowel full of mortar and then straightening up again. Think of the waste of effort that has gone on through all these years, with each bricklayer lowering his body, weighing, say, 150 pounds, down two feet and raising it up again every time a brick (weighing about 5 pounds) is laid in the wall! And this each bricklayer did about one thousand times a day.” Delivery of the bricks at waist level increased the work rate from 125 to 350 bricks per hour, and with less effort.

Take a close look at the men who are working on the right side of the picture in figure 1. The use of the treadmill crane to lift the bricks to where they are needed, as opposed to carrying them up the ladder, is obvious. Now take another look; the bricks are being delivered at waist level. There is also a seemingly odd picture of a man supporting a bowl of mortar on his back. The arrangement seems to enable him to move up the ladder as the wall grows to keep the mortar at roughly the mason’s waist level as well. Whoever drew this illustration probably worked from actual observation of medieval construction projects that would make Gilbreth’s nonstooping scaffold not a discovery but rather a rediscovery of something people overlooked for centuries. Note also that the workers at the lower right appear to be ensuring that the bricks do, in fact, have 90-degree angles before they are sent up to the masons. This is, however, far from the only efficiency opportunity that countless people saw but few, if any, observed.

Military motion efficiency

Napoleon once said that every French soldier carried a marshal’s baton in his pack because promotion was available to anybody who merited it. Every soldier of the horse and musket era certainly carried the secret of motion efficiency in his pack because he had to follow what we would now call standard work to load his musket. Figure 2 is an illustration from the English Civil War that shows how to prepare a matchlock arquebus for firing.

Figure 2: How to prepare to fire a matchlock arquebus, 17th century

The similarity to a job breakdown sheet with visual aids is obvious, and this is far from the only such illustration from the 17th century. Jacob de Gheyn II provided similar step-by-step illustrations for Dutch arquebusiers at the beginning of the 17th century. Baron von Steuben’s drill manual Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States was even more similar to standard work because it prescribed the number of motions necessary for each step. A portion includes the following (with additional detail provided for each step):

V. Half cock—Firelock! One motion.
VI. Handle—Cartridge! One motion.
VII. Prime! One motion.
VIII. Shut Pan! Two motions.
IX. Charge with Cartridge! Two motions.
X. Draw Rammer! Two motions.
XI. Ram down—Cartridge! One motion.
XII. Return Rammer! One motion.

The loading process was designed to remove all waste motions because being shot at is an excellent reason to shoot back as rapidly as possible. Hunters might use powder horns, but soldiers couldn’t waste time to measure out the charge for each shot. Arquebusiers used wooden cartridges with premeasured gunpowder charges, a form of external setup that removed this waste motion from the process. Flintlock musketeers used paper-wrapped charges that could be bitten open, whereupon the charge, bullet, and paper could be rammed down the muzzle with the paper serving as wadding. Muzzle-loading firearms could be fired up to six rounds per minute in this manner.

Tens of millions of men, if not hundreds of millions, served in these armies over the centuries. Tens of thousands of drill instructors, if not more, taught these loading drills over the centuries. Only in 1911 did Gilbreth write, “The United States government has already spent millions and used many of the best of minds on the subject of motion study as applied to war; the motions of the sword, gun, and bayonet drill are wonderfully perfect from the standpoint of the requirements of their use. This same study should be applied to the arts of peace.”2

Inefficiency in agriculture

Labor activists complain that farm workers, and especially the migrants who harvest many of our crops, are paid too little. Consumers complain that they pay too much for fruits and vegetables. The farmers who employ the workers complain that they earn too little profit and must often struggle to stay in business. All three stakeholders are right.

The National Center for Law and Economic Justice3 complains, for example, “Abusive employer practices and stagnant wages prevent many workers, even those able to find full-time employment, from earning a living wage.” It takes less than one second to observe from the picture at the top of the center’s web page why the workers are paid very badly, even though they labor very hard. Henry Ford wrote that no job should require anybody to bend over or take more than one step in any direction, which is exactly what these farm workers are doing.

The Natural Resources Defense Council4 adds, “Despite the dangers of farm work—and the skill needed to get the work done—about a third of U.S. farm workers live below the poverty level....” The occupational health and safety aspects of these jobs are outside the scope of this article, although OH&S is nonnegotiable; people are entitled to safe workplaces.5 The key takeaway is that it again takes less than a fraction of a second to see from the photo captioned “Carrots are picked near Arvin,​ Calif., Aug. 20, 2020” why these workers are paid so badly. One is bending over to harvest carrots, and the other is carrying a heavy bag. We will find similar complaints about low farm worker pay all over the internet, and they often come with similar pictures or even videos. The root cause, however, is rarely addressed because—and this is the key takeaway—many see but few observe.

This seems to include the United Farm Workers (UFW), the union that wants good pay and working conditions for its members. I also want the people who harvest the food I buy in the grocery store to have good pay and working conditions. This is entirely consistent with lower rather than higher prices for the food, and higher profits for farmers, if we get rid of the immediately obvious waste that is built into the workers’ jobs. Again, we see pictures on the UFW website of farm workers bent over to do their jobs and carrying loads on their shoulders. The key takeaway relates to the bad job design, and not the other issues these articles address.

The enemy doesn’t even try to hide

The enemy of the farm workers, and also farm owners and American consumers, is therefore right in front of us and not even trying to conceal itself, but few are attacking it. It might even be useful to personify this enemy, as Germany did during World War II. They had a board game called Jagd auf Kohlenklau (“Hunt the Coal Thief”). The Coal Thief personified energy wastes and taught people how to find them in their own homes. The Kohlenklau is still featured by the Bund fur Energieverbraucher (Federation for Energy Consumers).6 This reference adds, in fact, “The coal stealing campaign is probably the most extensive energy saving campaign that has ever been carried out.” I don’t know if the game is still under copyright, but I proposed a new character, “Mr. Muda (Waste)” who is not.7

Recall how workers were bending over to harvest carrots and carrying them around in heavy bags. Tractorpool.com advertises used carrot-harvesting machines for roughly the price of low-mileage used cars, and a virtually new Simon S3CMR8 for about $46,500. This is a one-row harvester, but it can do the work of numerous manual workers. Drivers can be paid a lot more, workers don’t have to walk or bend over, and the carrots will cost a lot less to harvest. The Dewulf GKIIISE will harvest three rows simultaneously.9

There are also numerous pictures and videos of workers bending over to pick strawberries, and they also have to carry or push carts of boxes to hold the berries. If a farmer can’t afford five or six figures for a state-of-the-art harvesting machine, Green Door Gourmet demonstrated a very simple machine it says doubles productivity. The worker lies face down, does not have to walk, bend over, or carry boxes, and the berries’ relative motion beneath him or her is similar to the motion of parts on a moving assembly line.10 The similar Rohand II Picking Assistant, which is solar-powered, costs $4,700.11 These off-the-shelf solutions are obvious, but only if one recognizes the underlying problem in the first place.


Shigeo Shingo wrote, “Unfortunately, real waste lurks in forms that do not look like waste. Only through careful observation and goal orientation can waste be identified. We must always keep in mind that the greatest waste is the waste we don’t see.”12  To this Taiichi Ohno added, “In reality, however, such waste is usually hidden, making it difficult to eliminate.... Unless all sources of waste are detected and crushed, success will always be just a dream.”13

It’s helpful to stand in the Ohno circle and watch what happens in the gemba, the value-adding workplace, only if one knows what to look for. Countless people went to the gemba due to very real concerns over low wages and poor working conditions for farm workers, but their enemy, “Mr. Muda,” stood up right in front of them and escaped notice. Tens of millions of soldiers served in the armies of the horse and musket era, but none apparently brought home the principles of motion efficiency to civilian industries. We must accordingly not take anything we see in the gemba (or elsewhere) for granted so as to be among the few who observe while others only see.


1.  Taylor, Frederick Winslow. The Principles of Scientific Management. Harper Brothers, 1991 (1998 republication by Dover).
2. Gilbreth, Frank Bunker. Motion Study. D. Van Nostrand Company, 1911.
3. “Low Wage Workers.” National Center for Law and Economic Justice.  
4. Brook, Lena; Constible, Juanita. “Treat Farmworkers as Essential, not Sacrificial.” National Resource Defense Council, Sept. 14, 2020. 
5. OSHA Worker Rights and Protections. U.S. Department of Labor.
6. Der Kohlenklau. Bund der Energieverbraucher.
7. Levinson, William. “ISO 14001, ISO 50001 Benefit the Environment and the Bottom Line.” Quality Digest, Dec. 17, 2018.
8. The Simon S3CMR in action. Simon Web TV, Mar. 18, 2021.
9. Dewulf GKIIISE - 3-row trailed carrot harvester. Dewulf, July 13, 2012.
10. Nashville farmers invent strawberry picking machine. Tennessean, Oct. 3, 2016.
11. “Crop Cart Lets You Lay Down On The Job.Farm Show Magazine, Vol. 44, No. 5, 2020, p. 25.
12. Robinson, Alan (editor). Modern Approaches to Manufacturing Improvement: The Shingo System. Routledge, 1990, p. 14.
13. Ohno, Taiichi. Toyota Production System: Beyond Large-Scale Production. Productivity Press, 1988, p. 59.


About The Author

William A. Levinson’s picture

William A. Levinson

William A. Levinson, P.E., FASQ, CQE, CMQOE, is the principal of Levinson Productivity Systems P.C. and the author of the book The Expanded and Annotated My Life and Work: Henry Ford’s Universal Code for World-Class Success (Productivity Press, 2013).