Shonky experiments

chemikWhat’s the definition of an experiment? The Oxford English dictionary provides the following:

  • A scientific procedure undertaken to make a discovery, test a hypothesis, or demonstrate a known fact
  • A course of action tentatively adopted without being sure of the outcome

So an experiment can be about testing a hypothesis (i.e. you are predicting the outcome), and it can be about studying a ‘what if’ scenario where you don’t have a specific expectation of what the result will be. Further, some philosophers of science hold that an experiment can never prove a hypothesis, it can only add support.

To be valid, the experimenter must:

  • have a meaningful and robust method of ‘before’ and ‘after’ measurement: you need to be able to objectively study the outcome;
  • have a valid method of isolating the variable(s) being considered: there’s not a lot of point testing something whilst there are lots of other changes going on as well;
  • neutralise any potential biases: you need a truly open mind…bear in mind that the human being irrationally looks for evidence that supports its current view and, conversely, ignores evidence that does not.

Okay, so how is this relevant to an organisation trying to improve?

You are not performing a valid ‘experiment’ if you are simply ‘testing’ how to implement something you have already decided, and then ‘learning’ how to adjust its implementation so as to roll it out more efficiently.

The ‘Act’ within Plan-Do-Study-Act does not mean Implement…it means take the relevant actions that arise from your scientific study of the outcome of your well planned and executed experiment.

‘Act’ might mean:

  • adopt the change; or
  • abandon the change (e.g. reverse it to arrive back at the original condition), or
  • adapt the test (because you learned something important that needs adjusting); or
  • expand the size of the test (because you need more evidence to conclude)

A reminder of a quote by some dude called R Buckminster Fuller (nice name!):

“There’s no such thing as a failed experiment, only experiments with unexpected outcomes.”

Remember that the PDSA ball should be continually rolling. It isn’t about one grand experiment that purportedly ‘solves all our problems’ by transforming us to a new state. It is about constant experimentation by the joint efforts of those charged with managing a process and those who perform it.

As a closing comment: Why might people be keen to jump to conclusions rather than have an open mind? It might be worth considering the management instruments which are being used upon them (M.B.O, targets, contingent rewards, the rating and ranking of people’s performance).

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