New Year, Same Pattern
The school year is starting once again and my family is falling into familiar patterns established in prior years. For my children, one of these patterns is weekly coaching. This coaching isn’t corrective in nature, but rather it is developmental and not as daunting as it might sound. We meet weekly to review the condition they are trying to create (a grade point average level, level of involvement in school activities, their health/fitness, etc.), and we also reflect on what they are experimenting with in an effort to improve to achieve their target condition.
I don’t believe a connection between parent and child to talk about their days and what they are involved in is abnormal, but I do think we differ in the structure of this connection. I’m trying to build capability in my children - specifically the ability to solve problems, and I’m doing this by encouraging and coaching them to embrace scientific thinking.
Embrace Scientific Thinking
The Shingo Institute Guiding Principle, “Embrace Scientific Thinking,” is one of the principles in the Continuous Improvement dimension. This dimension comprises Guiding Principles that focus on process and how to continually improve processes. Scientific thinkers generate hypotheses or ideas, test them, and from what they learn, they generate new ideas and test those new ideas. This principle may seem a bit more simple, or mechanical, in nature than other Guiding Principles, but don’t let the perceived simplicity fool you.
To truly embrace scientific thinking, one must develop new habits and be very intentional in how to approach improvement, which after all, is what we are really seeking. Connected tightly to the Shingo Guiding Principles of “Respect every Individual” and “Seek Perfection,” “Embrace Scientific Thinking” provides the method to change in ideal ways.
At its roots, “Embrace Scientific Thinking” rests on a fundamental truth: the best decisions are made based on a clear understanding of reality.
We are by nature curious and we want to be successful in our endeavors. I’ve watched my children be curious and find better ways to accomplish even small tasks throughout their lives. As a parent, I try to respect them by encouraging this innate drive. Protecting them from harm while providing latitude to experiment and learn by doing so fosters their growth. Their natural scientific thinking abilities shine as they gain new experiences and understanding, take the new understanding and try different things, learn, and repeatedly cycle. As I see learning and understanding happening, I can observe the application of scientific thinking. This is an ability that we can further develop, and with a pattern to follow to obtain new understanding, my children, and every person, can be more successful in whatever they are attempting.
In both my operational and coaching experiences, I’ve observed two specific challenges to thinking scientifically, rigorously and consistently; not investing the time needed to understand reality, and not reflecting on actions taken.
Let’s unpack the first challenge a bit more. It is not uncommon to observe meetings where time is invested to debate which “solution” to pursue. Time is of the essence and quick results are desired. Each member of the meeting has their own version of reality based on their perspectives and experience, and thus each is convinced they know the best path. Leaders often are promoted for the ability to quickly “read’ a situation and decide on the right response. This behavior is a learned one and may be necessary in some select situations, but is not ideal and is a difficult habit to break. I describe this as a non-ideal behavior because these leaders are trying to make a decision without really seeing reality.
As we are reminded in the truth of this principle, we make the best decisions when we have a clear understanding of reality. As leaders and professionals in a society that seems to be accelerating, how often do we really “see” and get to understand reality?
Standing in the Circle
As I was reflecting on techniques to understand reality, I kept coming back to mental images of Taiichi Ohno guiding a learner to go and observe a process for a great length of time. To go and “stand in the circle” (circle drawn on the ground adjacent to a work process) to observe the process and demonstrate the power of investing time to truly understand reality. The learners practice observation skills to get a better understanding of how to “see.”
While writing this post, I connected with a friend and colleague, Amy Mervak (an amazing coach and transformation expert), and she helped me see how the learners standing in the circle were essentially practicing mindfulness as part of their effort to understand reality. They were focusing on being intensely aware of what they were sensing and feeling in the moment, without interpretation or judgment. They were not meditating, but intensely concentrated on what they were seeing, feeling, hearing, and overall sensing to help them understand reality. They were trying to be present, fully, to immerse themselves in the current reality so they could understand it. This is both incredibly powerful and challenging at the same time.
Now think of your typical day, do you have hours to “stand in the circle” to understand a current reality to avoid making decisions with imperfect information? You probably answered, “No, I don’t have that time available.” I’d ask you to flip the thinking and ask instead, what is the risk of decision-making without understanding reality? I recognize it is impossible to fully know everything and understand reality with 100% completeness and clarity, but the point is the more informed we are, the better decisions we make.
"Failing" is a Learning Opportunity. Failing to Check-and-Adjust is a Missed Opportunity.
The second challenge we face, not reflecting on actions taken, is related to what I would describe as the false sense of countermeasure efficacy. We make better decisions with better information, but it is important to keep in mind that better is not the ending point; it is simply the starting point for the next level of better as we strive for perfect.
Embracing scientific thinking requires us to go beyond putting a countermeasure in place and walking away. No matter how well we know the current reality and how ideal of a countermeasure we think we have designed, it is not possible to know if the countermeasure is successful until we test it, which includes checking and adjusting.
As an example, I once coached a team that was trying to improve pre-operative preparation of patients to support a successful surgery. Before each experiment, they were certain they had the right countermeasures in place to reach their target condition. It was on their ninth iteration of countermeasures that they achieved their target condition. The last iteration was a combination of learnings from the other eight “failed” experiments. If they had not “checked” their countermeasures and found their failures, they would not have designed the successful countermeasure. Failure is not bad in itself, and in fact, we value failures as an excellent opportunity to learn.
Unfortunately, failure is not embraced as a learning opportunity in all organizations. Leaders are often promoted because they are good at getting things done, that is, they are good at solving problems. As briefly described above, based on leaders’ prior experience they can recognize a situation and make an informed decision about how to proceed. What happens when they encounter a situation that they don’t recognize or don't see the reality of a situation? I once heard the phrase “promoted to a level of their incompetence,” which is the idea that a leader can plateau and be unsuccessful within their role because they can no longer solve the problems they face.
This idea is flawed because people have unlimited potential.
Embrace Scientific Thinking to Continually Learn, to Continually Improve
The key to continual improvement is to continually learn. Learning happens when we reflect on what we expected to happen and evaluate our expectations against what actually happened. The problems leaders are facing today are more and more complex with greater demands. This combination means that leaders need to solve new problems and must learn even faster. As new problems present themselves, leaders who intentionally reflect on the actions they take with intention to learn, are better positioned to solve the problems of today and of the future.
If we make better decisions with better information and learn from the actions we take as we “Embrace Scientific Thinking,” then we can continuously improve on our way toward perfection.
In this fast world, it is easy to shortcut our understanding of current reality and implement a countermeasure without checking its effectiveness, but when we do so we create even more work, wasting precious time and effort. To counteract this, embrace the development of habits (another topic unto itself, check out The Power of Habit or Atomic Habits to learn more), and with an end in mind, practice really seeing and understanding your current reality to inform better decisions, take action, and then check to see what happens. Study the space between what you expect and what actually happens. This is where you’ll learn, and the evidence of thinking scientifically is learning quickly.
Written by Bill Boyd
Bill Boyd is a seasoned healthcare professional with over a decade of practice integrating process improvement methodologies into how he leads. He is passionate about collaborating with healthcare teams to create better care experiences and outcomes for patients and families. Previously, Bill served operational roles for the last 13 years at ThedaCare. Full Bio