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Answers Seeking Questions May 10, 2012

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics, Process engineering, strategy.
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My first real job out of college was at a defense contractor during an era of free spending in that segment of the US economy. This particular company decided they wanted to have the best-equipped analytical laboratory in the industry, so they went on a spree and purchased a variety of specialized instruments that were better known in academic settings, then hired a bunch of Ph.D. analytical chemists (like me) to figure out how to use the instruments for applications like incoming material inspection, process control, and failure analysis.

I didn’t give it much thought at the time, so it wasn’t until later that I realized how ridiculous this was. Most of the expensive instruments were ill-suited for that kind of routine testing in an industrial environment, and all of them had capabilities that far exceeded what was required. Obviously it was also overkill to hire Ph.D. chemists to basically qualify the instruments and run the daily tests.

It’s easy to chalk this up as an example of what happens when there’s too much money to spend, but there’s another lesson here about the folly of insisting on an answer without being clear about the question.

I remembered this story the other day when I heard about a quality manager who claimed to be an expert in statistics but couldn’t explain the difference between a t-test and an F-test. The difference is subtle, but isn’t it more important to be able to explain what they’re used for, not just what they are? How often do we switch on the auto-pilot and apply a tool or technique that’s inappropriate for the situation? Even worse, how often do we ignore evidence that contradicts the decision we’ve already made? It’s worth taking a minute to state clearly what problem we’re trying to solve instead of looking for a question that fits the answer.

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