Embracing the scientific method

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on 01-03-13

I read plenty of disturbing statements about lean, but I read one recently that really caught my attention because it seemed to rip the core of lean out of lean, and then almost claim credit for putting it back in.

I was reading a copy of AME’s Target Magazine from my huge backlog pile of reading, and read Applying Lean Principles for Scientific Research: Embracing a new way of doing research at Sandia National Laboratories (Spring 2012). Here was the quote, from Sandia National Laboratories (full disclosure: we’ve trained some folks here):

“The S&T [Applied Science and Technology Maturation] Department chose to create its Lean S&T process by integrating the principles of lean and the scientific method.”


I thought lean was all about the scientific method.

They go on to describe the scientific method quite well (and the rest of the article is quite good):

1. Observation and description of a phenomenon or group of phenomena.

2. Formulation of a hypothesis to explain the phenomena.

3. Test the hypothesis and use it to predict the existence of other phenomena, or to predict quantitatively the results of the new observations.

4. Peer review of the results of experimental tests and the predictions by several independent experimenters and properly-performed experiments.

That sounds good to me. Lean is all about becoming scientists of how things work, although instead of trying to figure out how nanotechnology works or chemical bonding, we are more focused on understanding how organizations work – people, processes, and yes, technology too. But we gain that knowledge, that insight, through experimentation.

It’s not enough to have the tools. It’s essential to understand them, how they work, and why they work. As an example, Nobel Laureate and MIT Professor Robert Merton explained the world’s financial collapse this way:

“Finance is truly global; it doesn’t have meaningful borders. And, if you look at the financial crisis, one important element that senior management and their regulators really didn’t have was a rich enough, deep enough understanding of their tools.” (The Foundation and Future of Finance, MIT Sloan Magazine , Fall 2012)

I don’t care what your profession is, it is still about understanding cause and effect, whether it’s understanding how things work in financial decision making, or understanding what has the greatest impact for delivery time as a UPS truck driver, or figuring out what provides the most help to a guest as a receptionist. The scientific method applies to every job available.

Strong lean efforts make heavy use of experimentation. They continuously study the current state through observation. They formula understanding of cause and effect through anything from process mapping to fishbone diagrams. They generate solutions and test them, and test them again, and again, until they truly understand. And the share the learnings and make it as transparent as possible.

Regardless of whether you are doing massive changes through strategic planning, or micro-tweaks to how you handle your email inbox, the same basic premise applies. You are either going down an learning path, based on experimentation and the scientific method, or you are going down a knower path, where learning doesn’t happen. Every day, every change, every person, you must make the choice of which path to follow, regardless of the tool, method, or template you decide to employ.


Which will you be? A learner, or a knower?


  • The quote from the article tells me many people don’t quite grasp the idea that the lean principles (define value, map the value stream, create flow, establish pull and pursue perfection) actually incorporate PDCA. We
    aren’t all in the habit of explicitly speaking about it that way. The principles and PDCA are often viewed as mutually exclusive.

    Excellent post that reiterates the significance of the scientific method!

    Rebecca January 4, 2013 at 12:46 pm
  • Thanks Rebecca.

    I encourage people to use words like experiment, hypothesis, what result do you expect to get, verify – we need to make it about more than the learning and improvement cycle than about implementing pre-defined solutions.

    Jamie Flinchbaugh January 4, 2013 at 12:51 pm
  • I feel like everything I try is an experiment. From the way I conduct an improvement event (what tools I use in it to get the results) to questions I ask to understand a problem. The key is to start with some standard and then see if the change helps improve the results.

    I am disappointed to hear they tried to separate the scientific experimentation from lean because the only way to learn is through experimentation…and some failures too. Creating a Learning Organization is one of the lean principles; therefore, experimentation is directly linked and a part of lean.

    Matt Wrye January 4, 2013 at 1:04 pm
  • Great article, Jamie. I was once chastised (and rightfully so) in a “Lean 101” training session last year for giving too much credit to Toyota and not enough credit to Dr. Deming for the success of what we now call Lean. The scientific method, in my opinion, is essential for sustainable improvement.

    Dean Bliss January 7, 2013 at 2:08 pm