A writer I follow occasionally recently wrote a whole article suggesting that science is overrated. He’s wrong. The problem is that science is misused. Stay with me while we go on a circuitous route to make my point.
When we have a problem in our area – say too much rework – we really have two choices about how to tackle it. One option is to try random options that we think might work. If it works out, great. We have a solution for now. The other option is to try to deeply understand the system and then carefully and systematically test our knowledge by doing little trials, learning something and then adjusting.
The first option results in dramatic action, which can often be taken quickly. But it is always up in the air whether it will work. The second option tends to take a bit longer in the early stages, but because we are always working from tested outcomes, the result tends to be more reliable.
So, when we have a lot of rework, we could say, “Oh, it’s from how people handle the material.” We could put in place a whole training program and standard work practices to solve the problem. But it might not have any effect. Or we could say, “I don’t know why we have the rework. Let’s observe what’s being done and when damage happens.”
I worked with a client last year where their initial hypothesis (that’s the science word for “my best guess about what will happen”) was material handling, but they agreed to do some observation first. What they discovered was that the racks had some rough points that consistently caused scratches. A one-hour test with some masking tape showed that if they could protect the parts from the racks, the scratches were eliminated. In the end it was a much cheaper and faster route to a solution than changing how they handled the material.
What they did was science. Trying to systematically understand how the process actually worked, followed by some systematic tests to validate their new understanding. It worked.
When leaders assume they know the process, in all its details, it is dangerous on several fronts. If they don’t understand, it may put people or products or assets at risk. It is also likely to waste time implementing a “solution” that doesn’t work.
It is interesting that in each of the Training Within Industry programs (Job Relations, Job Instruction, Job Methods) the assumption going in is that we don’t really know how things are working. So the first step is always to try to understand the situation. In Job Relations, it is Get the Facts. In Job Instruction, it is identify the current best way. In Job Methods, it is Break Down the Job. These three core skills for any front line leader are firmly rooted in the scientific method.
My conclusion is the issue is not that science is over-rated. The issue is that science is misused or ignored. The simple presence of data and charts doesn’t make for scientific thinking. It is the thinking process that we need to see.
So keep on doing science in the workplace. It is fun. The experimenting is low cost and fast. And it delivers some pretty amazing results. Oh yes. One other thing. It makes your job, as a front-line leader, a lot easier.