That’s my retina. It’s one of the most valuable instruments I have. Like everyone, I have two. For me, they are indispensable for solving problems in the pharmaceutical industry, where expensive out-of-the blue failures plague development and manufacturing processes. Over the years, I have come to realize that I am blessed with what Roger Waters aptly calls “amazing powers of observation.”

Yet, I don’t have a well-developed mind’s eye. It’s pretty much non-existent. Aphantasia they call it. Most people see realistic images when they visualize something. “Duh!” I hear you say, with my mind’s ear, naturally. Not me. I merely get a vague, distant sense of seeing something. Maybe my heightened observation skills have something to do with that. Who knows.

As I mulled over retiring from the pharmaceutical industry and setting up my consultancy in 2017, I looked back and saw — with my barely-existent mind’s eye — common themes behind my most valuable contributions to the company and my less inspired moments. Knowing this, I was able to align my company’s focus with what I know I’m uniquely placed to offer. And what not to waste my time on.

I have three highly-developed skills, all to do with looking and — more importantly — seeing.

  • Looking at a physical problem (formulation, packaging components, manufacturing equipment, etc.), seeing the cause, and offering a solution. For example, a 30-second observation through a microscope solved a problem that had cost $7M and gone unresolved for two years!
  • Looking at large and complex product performance datasets and seeing patterns hidden to others — including statisticians.
  • Seeing macroscopic behaviors in things like suspension formulations and powder flow, then developing inexpensive, simple instruments that translate what I see into useful objective and quantifiable measurements.

“Big deal. Anyone can do that.”

True, anyone can, but few people do. A meeting room once took on an awkward air as a colleague (my stakeholder) and I (the specialist team leader) put together a list of laboratory experiments to agree what work my team would do — and not do — to support development of a new product. Half-a-dozen or so people in the room put forward their suggestions as my colleague compiled the list. “Um, Steve,” I started, “there’s one missing — right at the top of the list — visual observation.” He replied tersely, “That’s obvious. We don’t need to put that down.” I insisted and, after some debate, item zero was on the list.

Why did I make such a fuss over something seen as so trivial as to be irrelevant? It’s a cliché — near the top of the list of the most overused — but time is money.

“Okay, and the point is?” I imagine you muttering behind a stifled yawn.

In my quarter-century experience, experimental investigations, data analyses, process troubleshooting, and other activities lacked the valuable step of “just look at it!” Instead, those planning the work would — well — blindly choose a more complex starting point. For developing or troubleshooting formulations, this meant testing products with the usual battery of analytical techniques. Most are expensive capital items. Skilled operators are needed and trained at significant cost to the company. The measurements themselves may take hours. Equipment, operators and time are scarce resources requiring careful prioritizing. But come a major unexpected incident, all the planned activities are thrown into chaos.

In contrast, eyes are cheap (every employee provides two of them at no cost to the company), maintenance costs are low (a few hundred dollars every couple of years, if glasses are required), they are instantly available, and — quite literally — the more pairs of eyes you can devote to a problem, the better. But what of skilled eye operators?

Everyone comes into this world with an innate ability to see patterns in their environment. At first, this serves to differentiate safe from dangerous, usually by association with past good or bad experiences. As we grow, we become more skilled at this “discerning visual observation”.

“Eew, this cheese is off!”

How do you know? Did you eat some cheese in the past that looked the same (moldy, perhaps?) and associate what you see now with that most unpalatable moment? What was your thought process? Was there one? I doubt it. More likely, your subconscious joined the dots for you, triggering that yucky memory. You can automatically, immediately, and effortlessly recognize the differences between the good and bad cheeses.

In contrast, “critical visual observation” is analytical and primarily conscious. You look, ask critical questions and, hopefully, identify something to further your understanding of that troublesome product or machinery.

Going back to the cheeses, you know they are different, but how do you know? What makes their appearance different? A casual glance at a bottle of milk will tell you if the contents are spoiled. How do you know? “Because it’s all lumpy and horrible.”

You know these things because your learned them previously.

You and your spouse are assembling a couple of flat-pack office desks. Okay, full disclosure, my spouse and me. They were heavy and frustrating. #1 was coming together reasonably painlessly until it all went horribly wrong. I was fitting one panel edge-on at right angles to another. I put dabs of glue in the dowel holes, inserted the dowels and pushed the panel into the holes of the other. “That’s odd,” I thought.

I glanced and saw it had only gone in so far. No problem, my past had taught me that it was likely the dowels were a little tight and that a gentle tap with a rubber mallet would solve the problem. Tap-tap. No joy. Tap-tap. Still no joy. TAP-TAP. Did you know splintering particle board has a unique sound? I looked and shouted unpleasantries at the desk. I knew from experience that it was not good. Had I stopped when I first noticed something wasn’t right, I could have used my critical observation skills to find out why.

experimental design and analysis

To me, the key distinction between critical and discerning visual observation is that the former involves asking objective questions and not relying on previous experiences of the situation at hand. I’m not suggesting that only critical observation is required. A combination of the two types is far more valuable. Indeed, you can’t switch off your subconscious observation. Understanding why I had managed to drive two small dowels all the way through the panel required both kinds of observation.

The point at which critical observation often kicks in is the “what the %&@#?” moment. First, you ask a question, followed by looking for something to see the answer. You repeat this as many times as needed to reach a conclusion (or give up). Unconscious observation will occur, too. All of this may sound rather obvious and trivial, but here are some of the possible critical observations that led me to the reason for the failure and saved me from destroying desk #2.

  • I see splintered particle board.
  • I see that the dowels protrude further than the thickness of the other panel. i.e., either the latter is too thin, or the dowels are too long. (Don’t assume that it must be the latter.)
  • I see that the edge of the first panel is flush with the second, there are no gaps.
  • After removing the dowels, I see that they are the same length as others used elsewhere.
  • I see that when I tap the dowels, they cannot go any further into the original holes.
  • I see that when I insert the same dowels into holes on the edges of other panels, they do go further in such that the exposed parts of the dowels are shorter.
  • I conclude that the dowel holes had not been drilled deep enough into the edge-on panel.
  • I utter more unpleasantries.

In each case, it may have only taken a second or two to formulate a critical question, make the observation, and draw a conclusion. I applied what I learned from this novel experience to assemble the second desk without further damage and waste of time. Put a different way, I increased the robustness of my process and lessened the cost of poor quality.

What about a scenario where critical visual observation could significantly reduce time, cost, human resource, and waste on a sustained basis?

Okay — how about knowing when a banana is just how you like it? Or, to add an extra level of complication, what bananas to buy so they are perfect in a few days? I’m sure you are looking at the seven bananas and having thoughts such as, “Mmm, that one will be impossible to peel, let alone eat.” Or, “Yuck, that one will be all mushy and way too sweet.” “Ooh, now that one — third from the left. That looks perfect. Yum!”

Most people would probably pick the same one, and they could no doubt arrange the bananas in increasing level of ripeness — as in the photo — based purely on what they can see. How? “I dunno. I just know. I mean, look. It’s obvious, isn’t it?!”

But look again. Ask yourself how do you know. Imagine writing instructions for grading a banana’s ripeness only by eye so that someone who has never seen a banana can tell you how ripe it is. Go ahead. Study the photo intently. What questions come to mind?

  • How much of the skin is green?
  • How much of the skin is yellow?
  • How much of the skin is black?
  • Are there any blemishes? If so, what color are they? What size? How many?
  • Is the stem green, yellow or black?

Any others?

The answers to all the questions can be scored much like an online personality quiz. “Congratulations, Maggie! You scored 23. That means your banana is perfect for eating!” Maggie had never seen a banana before but, by using critical visual observation, she determined it had ripened enough to enjoy.

Gauging the banana’s appearance is not a direct method of measuring its ripeness. The most appropriate indicator is the sugar content of the flesh. Unripe bananas are 70-80% starch and negligible sugar. During ripening, enzymes convert the starch into a variety sugars. Fully ripened, there is less than 1% starch and about 16% sugars. The gold standard way to measure the sugar levels uses expensive laboratory equipment (HPLC), and it may take an hour or more to test. A more practical means is a handheld refractometer. As this video demonstrates with an apple, the process is convoluted though inexpensive. It’s also surrogate. i.e., it measures a different property of the banana that relates to the sugar content.

But there is an essential disadvantage of both techniques — they are destructive. The very banana you want to test will be destroyed! If you are a producer and have to analyze, say, 1% of your crop before shipping, that’s 1% of your harvest beaten to a pulp — literally.

For the banana example, critical visual observation has these advantages:

  • non-destructive (or invasive)
  • quick
  • doesn’t require advanced training
  • doesn’t need special equipment

These four attributes reduce human resource, time, capital expenditure, and product waste.

Consider another food example — hot spicy corn chips. These are regular corn chips coated with a blend of spices and other seasonings. Based on consumer experience, the ideal chip should have a uniform distribution of the flavorings. But that’s a rather subjective statement. Shouldn’t there be a quantitative measure of the uniformity of the seasonings linked to the consumer’s enjoyment of the chip? Yes, and on a small scale — a few dozen chips served every hour in a restaurant — one person could reject improperly seasoned chips by using critical visual observation.

On an industrial scale, a single manufacturer may produce thousands of chips every hour. Inspecting every chip by eye would require a lot of people. But a camera and a computer could analyze each one. The Frito-Lay company does exactly that for every DORITOS® chip. The questions and scores obtained by human critical visual observation form the basis for a machine vision algorithm. Ahead of the bagging process, a camera records an image of each chip after it falls off a conveyor belt and heads toward a bagging shoot. A computer applies its algorithm to the image and determines if the distribution of the seasonings is acceptable. If not, a short pulse of compressed air blows the chip away from the shoot. The result? A bag full of perfectly seasoned chips.

Roger Waters is right about me, but I’m not as unique as I am prone to believe. Everyone can apply critical visual observation to their personal and working lives. As with many skills — physical or mental — it requires ongoing practice to be effective.

Practice can be as simple as a spot-the-difference puzzle or taking an everyday scene and asking questions about it. For example, how can you tell the difference between a MINI Cooper S car and its MINI Countryman cousin? Go beyond the obvious, ask the critical questions and put aside your preconceptions.

With time you’ll notice that asking the critical questions and seeing what’s been alluding you will become increasingly automatic and effortless. You may even get to the point that when people ask how you made your visual discoveries, you will reply, “It’s obvious.”

To summarize in one sentence, combining simple observations with critical questions can lead to creation of measurement methods that are quick, easy, inexpensive, objective and quantitative — all desirable attributes for developing and controlling industrial processes.


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