Do You Need Advanced Math Skills To Be A Scientist?

Today I was doing some quick surfing to catch up on some of the latest headlines.  I don’t quite remember how I got to the story, but I found myself reading a Harvardvery long and detailed article on a member of the Harvard Quiz Bowl team accused of cheating, subtitled “the biggest scandal in quiz bowl history.”  Reading through the article, I was surprised at how the story spilled on to three pages, and impressed by the level of research and detail put into an area that many across the country may dismiss as trivial and uninteresting.  Then, I reminded myself that I spend several hours a month writing about lean thinking…

The article was on Slate.com, and I found it to be written with much higher quality and deeper insight than say, the “Top 10 Grocery Store Traps” on the regular MSN homepage.  So I tried another one, entitled “E.O. Wilson is wrong about math and science“.  EO WilsonThis Slate article examines a recent WSJ article written by E.O. Wilson, an “eminent Harvard biologist and best-selling author”, and concludes that Wilson is telling aspiring scientists that they don’t necessarily need mathematics to survive – and takes issue with that message.  (It was a much shorter read than the aforementioned “scandal that brought down a powerhouse”)  The article itself didn’t strike a specific chord with me, but then I began to read over the comments by readers.  Most of the respondents appeared to be physicists, professors, scientists.  In general they argued against the Slate article’s conclusions about Wilson’s message, with several stating that although understanding of basic math is necessary, most advanced math concepts are not necessarily applied in many scientific fields, and that Wilson was saying that “discoveries can come from ideas, not always just number crunching”.

Now I’m certainly not here to argue one viewpoint or the other.  Reading through the comments and arguments, I felt woefully inadequate on the intellectual front.  However, the articles and comments made me think about principles of Lean, a little on how Six Sigma fits in, and what it means to have GEeveryone be problem solvers vs. a handful of experts.  I was trained in Six Sigma at G.E. back in 2000 (thanks Cindy!), and loved the tools, the logical thought process, and the focus on reducing defects.  It gave you a roadmap of how to analyze and solve problems, especially when dealing with multiple interactive variables.  Then in 2008 at my current company, I learned about lean, and saw how much more power it held for the entire workforce, the entire end-to-end system, the entire organization, than Six Sigma alone did.

Lean is about creating a community of scientists, from floor operators on up through senior leadership.  It teaches that you do not need experts to come in and solve all the problems, scientistbut that to truly be a continuously improving organization everyone needs to be able to solve problems everyday.  To enable this ideal world where everyone solves problems, we were not told to go teach everyone triple integrals, how to design a fold-over DOE, or how to complete a one-way ANOVA test.  We were told to teach everyone the scientific method, typically summed up in Lean teaching as Plan-Do-Study-Act/Adjust – hypothesis thinking.

“I understand my problem to be this.  I think the problem is caused by this.  Let’s check and see if that’s really the cause.  If we do this, then we expect this… Yes it is, ok let’s figure out how to block/eliminate that cause and make sure we never have that problem again.  If we do this, then we expect this… And let’s figure out how to make sure that our solution stays in place.”

I think just about everyone can understand that basic line of thinking.  If you assume 1-5% of all the work you do in your organization is waste in the eyes of the customer, and you want to strive to eliminate it all… well, that’s a lot of Six Sigma projects, if that’s your only improvement tool.  And you’re going to want an army of blackbelts.  But you don’t need to build that army!  I can’t remember exactly where I read it, but I liked someone’s recent description of using Six Sigma to solve all your problems – it was something along the lines of using six sigma for everything is like using a flamethrower to remove small stacks of hay in your yard.  So much of that waste could be removed with much simpler methods by so many more people if you train them in the fundamentals.

Is there a place for Six Sigma?  Sure!  It is a great tool.  Like I said, I loved using it.  There are complex problems with multivariable interactions that need to be analyzed with statistics to help make the right problems visible and weed out the noise.  But it will still take hypothesis thinking to figure out what you’re going to do to solve those problems!

Think of your organization and all the work you execute as a Louisville Sluggerlarge, round, 4-foot diameter chunk of lumber.  Think of what your customer values within that chunk of lumber as only the shape of a baseball bat.  Lean thinking, tools, and principles, are what can help whittle away large chunks of wood and get it to the shape of that baseball bat.  Six Sigma might be a tool you can use to fine tune where the sweet spot is when you get to that point.

One question I don’t have any answer to yet is, when do you decide what you do everyday isn’t enough and call in the experts?  When is the proper time to pull that particular andon cord?  What defines a problem as “complex”?  I’m sure there are some simple decision rules, such as “We’ve tried four times and the problem keeps coming back” or ” we’ve tried 10 experiments and don’t have any more direct causes we can think of to check”.  But my hypothesis is that most organizations have a long way to go and a lot of benefits to realize after they begin their lean transformation before they even need to begin worrying about that final 5% of waste to eliminate.

So do you need advanced math skills to be a scientist in your organization?  I think you need the ability and discipline to form and study a hypothesis.  And I think anyone can be taught those skills, regardless of whether they took AP calc or not.

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