Developing an Attitude of Science
The greatest enemy of continuous improvement is arrogance, particularly on the part of leaders, and the opposite quality of humility is a requirement of learning and improvement.
In my previous post I introduced the idea that there are “big thoughts,” or over-arching cultural principles that are essential to creating a genuinely lean culture. I suggested that the principle of Unity was the first. The second is what I will call the principles of Empiricism and Humility.
It might seem that empiricism and humility are two different things, but let me suggest that they are necessary corollaries.
Last night I watched the Charlie Rose interview of Jeff Immelt, the CEO of General Electric. I recommend the entire interview to you. It is insightful and intelligent. But, toward the end Charlie Rose asks Jeff Immelt what is the one piece of advice he would give to MBA students today if he was speaking to them at the Harvard Business School. His answer was “Humility and the curiosity that goes with it. The big mistakes you make are when you stop asking questions. But, if you are always hungry and digging for that extra piece of knowledge, that is how the world works.”
I think you would be hard pressed to find a better piece of advice for any executive or manager.
Correlation, Causation, or None of the Above?
Continuous improvement, or lean management, is built on the ability to discern fact from fiction; causal relationships from correlative relationships; anecdotes from data trends and statistical analysis. Unfortunately, our culture is doing a very poor job of helping students, and the population at large, develop these abilities. China, and many developing countries are outscoring the U.S. in math and science education with the U.S. ranked as low as 31st in math scores. This is a frightening trend with dramatic economic consequences.
Here is just one small example of this disability. Well.. actually, it isn’t that small!
It is constantly argued that lower taxes produce economic growth and higher taxes reduce economic growth. This is repeated so many times in the public press and political discourse that it is assumed to be true. The fact is that there is no demonstrable causal relationship between economic growth and tax rates. According to a study by the Congressional Research Service, a non-partisan body, there’s no evidence that tax cuts spur economic growth.
If anything, the chart below demonstrates a slight correlation (not a causation) between higher growth and higher tax rates. Don’t misunderstand, I like low taxes as much as anyone! But, what I like, is completely irrelevant to the facts. And your ideology or political leanings don’t change the facts! The facts are easy to demonstrate, but the facts are rarely looked at and given very little regard in the public discourse. Why is this? It is because we have become more ideological in our thinking and that frees us from the burden of analyzing the facts.
Dr. Deming’s 14 Points and an Attitude of Science
Dr. Deming was constantly preaching that we must manage by the “facts”, by the data, not by slogans, objectives, or other efforts to create fear or intimidation. He was, of course, a statistician and he believed in the power that comes from understanding your data.
I began my career in behavioral psychology which is heavily research and data oriented. B.F. Skinner used to say “the pigeon is never wrong.” In other words, when you conducted an experiment and the subject (a pigeon, for example) behaves in a way contrary to your expectations, the actual behavior trumps any theory you might have. It is the equivalent of saying, the employees are never wrong, in regard to their level of behavior or motivation. They are responding to the nature of contingencies, the consequences to behavior in the real environment. As the manager of those contingencies you are, therefore, responsible for their behavior. This is an attitude of science or empiricism.
My earliest work in textile mills in the South involved getting plant supervisors to post graphs that demonstrated rates of quality, waste, etc. and then have the supervisor lead a team meeting when they would discuss the data, ask why it was going up or down, reinforce improvement, and discuss what they could do to improve in the coming week. It was simple, but effective. Seeing the data on a graph, even by hourly workers, who in some cases were illiterate, had a powerful effect on their behavior. They responded to feedback, the visual display of the facts of performance. And, they could analyze data in its simplest form.
Every front-line work team and, of course, every management team must become “scientists.” By that I mean simply applying the essential scientific method of a) gathering baseline data, or data of a control group; b) implementing a change in methods or conditions; then c) studying the data as it changes; and then d) standardizing what worked; and e) moving on to another experiment, another intervention to attempt to improve performance. Letting the data speak, learning from the data, is the essential attitude of science and it is what we must cultivate in every organization. Until we achieve this we have not achieved the essential cultural characteristic of empiricism.
Scientists are humble because they know that they are not determining reality, they are merely discovering it, and most often after many, many failures. When Benjamin Franklin conducted his famous kite and key experiment to explain that lightening was electricity, he did so in a world in which the predominant view was that lightening was the anger of God punishing us for our sins. Franklin replaced superstition with science. That is exactly how most of human progress has been made and it is how most advances in production or other business methods are made. Unfortunately, in many of our organizations we are are still burning witches, rather than studying the data and experimenting.
As you go on your Gemba walk through production areas, in meetings with managers, ask for the data. See the data graphed! Ask “Why?” Teach them to become scientists!