Why do we need to set a hypothesis? Because that’s how the scientific method works. Why do we need to follow the scientific method? Because that’s how we solve complex or novel problems most effectively. Why is that true? Because we test and refine our hypotheses. We were going in circles. My customer was challenging the assertion that it was necessary to explicitly state that her organization’s method for problem solving be scientific. Resistance to using the term “lean”, Japanese terminology and common acronyms such as DMAIC or SMED is still fairly common. This objection to “scientific method” was a new one.
She argued that for her colleagues who were scientists, engineers or researchers with a background in the scientific method, emphasizing that phrase would seem redundant, too familiar, making the building of a new continuous improvement culture hard to sell. To workers without that education, the term scientific method would seem intimidating. The creative, artist types in her organization to chafe at the implied rigidity of “science”. Leadership would mentally position “science” below “strategic” and lose interest. Why not just specify the broad activities at each step, such as defining the problem in the customer’s language, clarifying the problem in terms of a gap, breaking down the problem into its components, looking for root causes, etc.? Her concerns seemed valid, but I suspected that solving the problem of resistance to the words “scientific method” would create other problems.
Without the discipline of the scientific method, we rush into solving problems. We rely on our experience or expertise. We think we know the answer or that we are smart enough to figure it out. IF we are not careful, we come to associate the solution to our own sense of self-worth or ego. Being right can even become more important than solving the problem. We may be right. Our intuition, creativity and experience may solve the problem. But we are all wrong at least half of the time.
What happens when we solve problems without explicitly following the scientific method?
- We are wrong but the reason why is not clear
- We need to justify, defend, make excuses or deflect blame for being wrong
- We spend mental energy re-inflating our ego, recovering from being wrong
- We become deaf to observations and insights of others
It’s OK to be wrong. It’s not OK to be wrong in the wrong way. There is a right way and a wrong way to be wrong. A hypothesis is a tool to help you be wrong in the right way. A hypothesis is a tentative, testable answer to a scientific question. It is an educated guess.
What does it mean to “be wrong in the right way”?
- We propose a tentative, testable answer to a question
- We know we could be wrong and are not threatened by this
- We intend to test it as being right or wrong, not defend our belief
- We don’t need to make excuses when we are wrong
- We are clear about what cause-and-effect relationship we are testing
- We gather and share data in a way that invites others to examine and contribute
The word hypothesis comes from the Greek word “foundation”. A hypothesis is not meant to be the final answer, only the beginning of investigation. The act of setting a hypothesis allows us to structure our thinking in such a way that we can safely learn the right lessons from failures. This seems like a small price to pay for making and effort to get over any aversion we might have to adding “scientific method” to our permanent vocabulary.