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Source: Business-improvement.eu
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ValenciaImprovement methods differ in focus (what to improve)
and pace (small or large improvement cycles)  

Scientific method core of all improvement methods

By Dr Jaap van Ede, editor-in-chief Business-improvement.eu, 19-06-2017

Lean, TOC, QRM, Six Sigma, TPM, Agile ... All these methods improve business processes in the same way: formulating a hypothesis, testing and continuously adjusting. Similar improvement cycles are also recognisable in modern approaches to product and strategy development, and have even become part of change management methods. Scientists will be familiar with these improvement cycles. These are variations on the scientific method.

Although all improvement methods use this scientific method, this does not mean that for example Lean is interchangeable whith Six Sigma. B
esides the tools and systems they encompass, the improvement methods differ in focus and pace. Regarding the focus: what should be improved first. Regarding the pace: is this done by way of small and rapid improvement cycles, or is this done by way of larger but also slower cycles. You can compare this with the gear ratio of a bike you use to climb the improvement hill.

In an earlier article I discussed two methods with opposite focus, namely flexibility (Agile) and efficiency (Lean). At that stage, I concluded that Agile and Lean technically do not differ. Options for change are pointed out, actions are taken to realize those options, it is checked whether the results are like they were intended, and this cycle is repeated endlessly.

City of sciences and arts, Valencia
‘City of sciences and arts’, Valencia

Such an improvement cycle is not only part of Lean and Agile. It is the core of all improvement methods, be it under different names. Examples are Plan-Do-Check-Act in Lean, Define-Measure-Analyze-Improve-Control in Six Sigma, and Build-Measure-Learn-Pivot in the Lean Startup approach.

The idea behind this did not come from management giants like Ford, Ohno, Goldratt or Deming. All improvement cycles are variants on the scientific method. Its origins go back to the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC).

The Improvement Kata, described in the book Toyota Kata, clearly shows that the scientific method is part of Lean
The Improvement Kata, described in the book Toyota Kata. This clearly shows that the scientific method is part of Lean    (source Mike Rother © business-improvement.eu)

Scientific method
The scientific method implies that the cycle below is applied:

  1. You observe things as objectively as possible.
  2. You formulate an interesting question. For example: what can be done better in the eyes of the customer. Defining the problem is perhaps the most important and difficult part. According to Albert Einstein, you should spend most time on this step.
  3. You formulate a hypothesis, that might answer your question. True scientists develop a model, as a simplified representation of reality. This model should not only describe the observations, but should also predict what happens in the new and improved situation (for example what the output will be of a production line after an adaptation). This principle is called falsifiability. A hypothesis is only interesting if it has a predictive value and can therefore also turn out to be incorrect.
  4. Experiments are carried out to test the prediction
  5. You check if your hypothesis was correct: is the process improved. Based on the result, you adjust your hypothesis or refine it. Next, back to step 1.

Any process improvement method uses this step-by-step plan. This comes as no surprise, since logistics is physics. In addition, all improvement methods, from Lean to Agile, and from TPM to Six Sigma, try to answer the same type of questions. These are variants on: how can I increase the value creation in my company.

Each improvement approach has its own tools to do that. Besides that, there are more differences. The first distinctive aspect concerns the focus: what can be done best at this moment to add more value in the eyes of the customer. For example, TPM strives to improve the productivity, Lean strives to improve the flow, and Six Sigma strives to increase the quality.

Bicycle test on a roller at Koga in the Netherlands
Bicycle test on a roller at Koga in the Netherlands. Do you improve fast with a small gear ratio (Lean),  with a larger gear ratio (Six Sigma), or do you try to accomplish a breakthrough in one very big cycle (TOC)?

Gear ratio
Another difference between the improvement methods is their pace. Compare this with the gear ratio of a bike. Lean applies small and fast cycles, like the way cyclist Cristopher Froome climbs a mountain. Six Sigma uses much bigger, but also slower cycles. The Theory of Constraints (TOC) beats every other method in "bigness". According to it, you should think a very long time first, and then act. The TOC models complete supply chains, in order to find one specific link, the bottleneck. Next, the hypothesis is that improving this link improves the whole supply chain.

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Cause and effect
Every event in a company is a matter of cause and effect. Therefore, the scientific method is also useful outside the logistics domain. The applicability was for example proven in product and strategy development, in methods like Scrum and Lean Startup.

Scrum devides the development of a (software)product in short sprints
Scrum develops of a (software)product in short sprints. These are in fact experiments, with feedback of a testgroup of customers. (source: Wikipedia)

Game of change
Even change management can benefit from the scientific approach. In their book Changing Social Organizations (until now only available in Dutch) Jaap Boonstra and Hans Vermaak introduce a game metaphor for realizing complex changes. While the game of change is played and evaluated, they say, new hypotheses for interventions (new rules of the game) should be developed and tried out later.

Litmus test
In every management idea, no matter how groundbreaking it might appear, one way or another the scientific method is included. Therefore, the presence or absence of it can also be used as a litmus test. Is an interative improvement cycle not part of a new way to improve, change or innovate? Then this is not a good management idea!

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