The Important Gap Between Observation and Perception

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on 07-26-22

Whether in problem-solving, or broad lean behaviors, or seeing the customer as an entrepreneur, there is much articulated about the idea of going to see for yourself. There are many terms for it, such as “direct observation” that we articulated in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Lean, or Gemba commonly used by the lean community, or just “go and see.” But this principle and practice is about much more than going to see. It is about what and how you see.

In the 1992 movie White Men Can’t Jump, Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson get into an argument about Jimi Hendrix in this scene (warning: foul language). Wesley’s character is trying to explain to Woody’s character that there is a difference between “listening to” Jimi Hendrix and “hearing” Jimi.


Now if you think I can’t swivel from that movie to Ancient Greek Stoic philosophers, think again…

In the book The Daily Stoic, the entry for April 10th is called “Judgements Cause Disturbance”, and while after a different outcome, does help illustrate this concept. 


“It isn’t events themselves that disturb people, but only their judgments about them.” – Epictetus in Enchiridion. The samurai swordsman Musashi made a distinction between our “perceiving eye” and our “observing eye.” The observing eye sees what is. The perceiving eye sees what things supposedly mean. Which one do you think causes us the most anguish? An event is inanimate. It’s objective. It simply is what it is. That’s what our observing eye sees. This will ruin me. How could this have happened? Ugh! It’s so-and-so’s fault. That’s our perceiving eye at work. Bringing disturbance with it and then blaming it on the event. 


Now Epictetus’ point is more to focus on not letting the perceiving eye bother you when there is nothing truly of concern from the observing eye. However, both eyes are of value.

The perceiving eye is where insight comes from. It is where we make meaning from what we see. It’s where we study, and our mind interacts with what we see. We might draw from intuition, experience, reasoning, or more. 

The observing eye sees things for what they are. There is little insight or meaning, but just truth.

The effective observer is (1) very aware of both the observing eye and the perceiving eye, and (2) very much in control of which one is shaping decisions and actions. This is not about one being good and one being bad. We need to see things as they really are. We also need to create meaning from what we see. 

A flamingo is pink, tall, and tropical. That is observation, but perception is about meaning and a flamingo is either a beautiful bird or an ugly one. Both can be right because it’s s a matter of perception. I want to state as fact that fake flamingo lawn ornaments are just ugly, but yet because of their mere existence, certainly some perceive them differently. 

Finally, to offer one more philosopher’s view from long, long ago. Obi-Wan Kenobi says that “you’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.” 


So, develop your pure, unfiltered observing eye. Also develop your insightful perceiving eye. Both will be needed.