Don’t Save the Zebra! Process Walk Cheat Sheet and Principles

Process walks are an essential part of a culture of continuous improvement. Leaders and teammates watching the actual people in the actual place doing the actual work is an invaluable opportunity to learn, to standardize, to identify innovations, and to ask “Why?”

Done well, process walks make a strong statement that it is okay to look at the process to see if it can be improved—and that the people doing the work may have the best insights about what works or doesn’t work in the current process.

Process walks are not asking people what they do from the confines of a conference room. When we talk in conference rooms, we get a version of the story, not the truth. We all unintentionally filter as we discuss and describe our work. (Often, the subjects of process walks are themselves surprised to learn everything that goes into some of their processes.) Process walks really walk the process.

If not done well, process walks can feel accusatory. No one likes to feel that they are in a fish bowl, with strangers ogling and critiquing their work.

And remember: Don’t Save the Zebra. A good documentarian must allow the zebra to escape or fall prey to the lion without intervening. Likewise, a good process walker must see how things are really done by the people doing the work.

In the context of process walks, “saving the zebra” by pointing out what people “should be doing” or “how they’re doing it wrong” undermines the trust that good process walks require. (See “be respectful,” below.)

“Saving the zebra” can also thwart learning. Good process walks can identify problems with how the process “should” work by spotting workarounds or innovations that the people doing the work have devised to fix those problems or make improvements. Saving the zebra can bungle that.

Here is a Process Walk Primer compiled by King County Lean Specialist Lori Heniff with a full list of what to do and how to do it before, during, and after in order to have a successful process walk.

process walk checklist

In addition to “Don’t Save the Zebra,” following these three basic principles is a great start:

    • Be Respectful. Ask respectful questions. Don’t critique the people doing the work to their face; go somewhere else to discuss and debrief. Send a thank you note.
    • Communicate and Clarify. Communicate with the team and the individuals doing the work. Be clear about your intentions and what you want to see. Be clear about how the process walk information might be used.Clarify within the process walk group who is doing what—who is documenting the steps in the process, who is tracking which measures, who is watching for waste, etc.
    • Take notes and measure! It is easy to think we’ll remember what we see. We won’t, at least not without good notes and careful measures. Sometimes we might have to watch the process several times and ask many questions in order to really capture the steps in the process. (Think about a purely keyboard process.)We might need a stopwatch or a tape measure to document certain measures. We might need a piece of paper and pencil to draw a spaghetti diagram. Many people bring a spreadsheet with predetermined columns and blank fields to fill in as they watch (examples here). The process walk measures are meant to complement, not supplement, more robust process and performance data that are tracked on a regular basis.

Following the primer and these principles can make process walks engaging, informative, and improvement-oriented for the people doing the walks as well as the people doing the work.

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