Scientific Thinking vs. The Scientific Method

My recent post, “…but where is the problem solving?” stirred up quite a bit of conversation and traffic. I would like to dig a little deeper into what “good problem solving” actually looks and sounds like – beyond the forms and tools.

Underlying all good problem solving is scientific thinking. With it, I am constantly comparing what I think with what I observe, and looking at differences as evidence that what I think might need revision.

Some years ago, I was driving down a residential street in Rochester, New York, and observed a series of signs in a yard, each with a single number on them.

Huh… what are those? Maybe they are the house number. (Hypothesis) I checked the mailbox across the street, and saw the next number in sequence, the neighbor’s mailbox had the same as had the next number after that. (Devise a test of the hypothesis, run the experiment, gather evidence.) I concluded that, yes, the signs were indeed just the address displayed in a creative way, and continued my drive.

I didn’t run any formal experiments. I didn’t document anything. I didn’t go through “the five questions” – I just thought about what those numbers might be, and tested my thinking. Had the house numbers across the street been totally out of sequence, it would have remained a mystery, as my hypothesis would have failed.

Was I applying the scientific method? Not really. I applied all of those “hypothesis” terms after the fact as I wrote this. But at the time I was curious about something (the first step of science), and applied simple logic to test an assumption I had made. While it might not be “the scientific method,” I would contend this was “scientific thinking.”

Most of the time, that is my habit. When I am uncertain and curious about something, I check it out. I apply the same thinking pattern troubleshooting my computer when it does something surprising (or annoying – are you listening, Microsoft?). None of this rises to the level of formal experimentation, it is just methodical thinking.

More difficult problems require more rigor and structure. But many “problems” just require a pause, a little thought, trying something – followed by making sure it works – and moving on. It is the “making sure it works” part that many people leave out of this process. And it is “making sure it works” that raises a blind fire-and-forget action item into an experiment… assuming that if it doesn’t work, you then dig in to understand why.

Most of these things are quick and need little formal structure. People call them “applying common sense,” and I agree – as long as the experimental mindset is there.

Much like that previous post, some of us continuous improvement people have built specific expectations about what “problem solving” should look like. But, no matter what structure is applied, the underlying pattern of thought remains the same – even for casual troubleshooting.

It is this habitual pattern of thought that Mike Rother’s Toyota Kata is intended to teach through practice. He introduces structure, but any logically and consistently applied structure will work.

Let’s not confuse specific jargon or forms with our underlying intent: Learning to habitually glance across the street at a mailbox if you think those signs might just be the house number.

3 Replies to “Scientific Thinking vs. The Scientific Method”

  1. Was just reviewing some notes from Robert “Doc” Hall’s “Attaining Manufacturing Excellence.” Thought you would appreciate his take:

    “Effective action can often be taken without precise evidence.”
    and …
    “Devise a systematic approach … based on the scientific method … This seems a bit underwhelming to most professionals: no great breakthroughs, only careful attention to detail. A full-blown, by-the-numbers systematic approach seems justifiable for NASA engineers analyzing the explosion of the Challenger, but not for operators studying, say, graininess in carrot bags. Indeed, many problems are quickly overcome without elaborate methodology.
    “The role of intuition is not cut out by the systematic approach, but solutions are difficult to standardize unless they are more clear than intuition often makes them. Problems arise when countermeasures derived from intuition are not checked and documented.”

    Cheers! -Craig

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