Tag: Scientist

Neil deGrasse Tyson Doesn’t Like The Idea Of Superheroes… And Neither Should Your Organization

The other day I listened to a great discussion on a podcast from The Forward, with host Lance Armstrong.  The guest was Neil deGrasse Tyson, popular astrophysicist, (6.74M Twitter followers for an astrophysicist? wow!) Director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York, and host of The Cosmos. (Lance refers to him as a “rock-star” astrophysicist)  Neil commented on a variety of topics, from cosmic perspective, to the future of NASA, to science in schools, to what drives innovation, to the influence of his parents, and on how there are a higher number of microbes in one linear centimeter of your colon than the number of total human beings ever born.

I found his take on these and other topics to be humorous, logical, warm and inviting, and grounded in a long-term vision vs. knee-jerk short term reactions.  Science in schools?  He didn’t want to prohibit a state like Texas from teaching creationism if they chose to do so, he just wanted to make sure that state’s choice didn’t automatically proliferate throughout the rest of the country without it being their choice as well, and to make those responsible aware of the potential long-term economic impact that choice may have.

One discussion caught my ear from a Lean standpoint.  At 40:00 in, Neil has been discussing his father and family upbringing, how his parents nurtured their children’s interests, and then Lance asks “was he your hero?”  Neil responds “I tried not to have heroes, because a hero – what is a hero… I like what Carl Sagan said about superheroes one day – he didn’t like the idea of superheroes, because they make the rest of us complacent – oh, there are problems in the world, the superhero will take care of it, i’ll sit back and watch that happen…. a superhero allows people to not have to take responsibility over their fate.

This next statement may be an over-generalization, but I’ve seen it discussed enough I feel it is broadly applicable:  Employees in larger organizations have historically been rewarded for being the superhero.  They come through in the clutch, they bring knowledge and experience no one else has, they get results.  Oh, we have a difficult quality problem?  Bring in the specialist.  She’ll help us solve it.  Oh, that machine isn’t working right?  Call in Jim, he’s the only one trained on how to get it back up and running, he’ll know what to do and help us save our production numbers this shift.  These organizational superheros get the praise and recognition, get the most high-exposure assignments, and tend to get the highest performance ratings and promotions.  So… what’s wrong with this model?  Why wouldn’t I want to assign the most important projects to the people that tend to get the best results?  Why wouldn’t I want to reward my high performers so they want to stick around my organization, continuing to drive great results?

There isn’t technically anything wrong with that concept.  Many organizations have done (and still do) just fine with that model.  Wrong isn’t the right word to use.  A more complete description would be that it is your current state, but that the organization could evolve to be more efficient overall, could realize a higher potential utilizing all of its resources to their maximum capabilities, and be built to deliver and sustain results over time.  In an organization where superheros can thrive, it is as Carl Sagan (possibly) said – the rest of us can become complacent.  We may see a problem, and just say oh, Robert will be able to solve that for us, let’s just wait until he has some time free up.  We wait.  And while we wait, the waste caused by that problem continues.  Perhaps it grows. Perhaps it festers.  The benefit you would gain from improving the problem has been delayed.  And perhaps specialists like Robert get tired of operating in a crisis or high-pressure mode all the time and leave for another company environment.  What do you do then?

What’s the alternative?  An organization where everyone solves problems.  A community of scientists, a community of problem solvers, an organization where everyone drives improvement, from the shop floor to the executive office.  Instead of waiting for Robert, anyone can take on the problem, or the team can work on it together. No need to call in a specialist – let’s improve the situation now.  What does it take to build this type of an organization?

  • Balancing rewards equally between building capability in team members and achieving results
  • Rewarding solving problems to root cause vs. quick temporary countermeasures that make you feel good in the short term
  • Setting the expectation that everyone will learn to solve problems – and following it up with leadership modeling those behaviors
  • Asking questions rather than providing solutions or instructions, which empowers the team to think rather than simply to execute

So Neil’s comment about superheroes should really ring true with those who are in the midst of lean transformation.  And by all accounts, Neil is a pretty smart guy.  It isn’t about creating Lean Superheroes.  It is about studying your current organizational superheroes – what skills and knowledge do they have that enables them to consistently deliver results?  What about those capabilities can we extract from them and move from tacit knowledge to explicit knowledge that anyone can use?  How can I build those capabilities into the rest of the organization?  And most importantly, how can I enable my team to evolve into a community of scientists?  What obstacles are holding us back?

Take the time and reflect – do you have an organization that looks to its superheroes to solve problems?  If you do… is it possible this part of your culture is a reason your transformation is being held back?

 

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.