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Harish Jose


Popper’s Circle

A philosophical view of problem solving

Published: Tuesday, May 9, 2017 - 12:03

I have been reading a lot these days about Western philosophy. The most recent book, All Life is Problem Solving (Routledge, 2001), is by Karl Popper, one of the great philosophers of the 20th century. This is a collection of Popper’s writings. One of the great teachings from Popper is the concept of “falsification,” which means that as a scientist one should always try to disprove a theory rather than try to confirm it.

A classic example is the case of black swans (not Nicholas Taleb’s black swan). If one were to theorize that all swans are white, based on the empirical evidence of observing only white swans, then that is simply confirming the theory. The observer is not actively trying to disprove his theory. When a black swan is discovered, his theory now breaks down.

Loosely put, falsification should lead to attempts to disprove or challenge one’s theory. The more times a theory survives attempts to falsify, the more “reliable” the theory becomes. An extreme example is if I claim that I have the psychic ability to have my coin turn up heads on all tosses. I can toss a thousand times and show one thousand heads. However, if I refuse to look at both sides of the coin to see if it is a two-headed coin, I am not looking to reject my claim. I am looking only for evidence that supports it.

However, my column today is not about falsification but about Karl Popper’s advice on observation. Taiichi Ohno, the father of the Toyota Production System, was said to have drawn a chalk circle on the factory floor and asked a supervisor or manager to stand inside the circle and observe an operation on the floor. The task was to find as much waste as possible by observing the operation. This has come to be termed as “Ohno’s circle” in the lean world.

I was quite interested to come across a section in Popper’s book where he also talked about observation as part of his three-step scientific methodology. His three-step model is as follows;
1. Problem
2. Attempted solutions
3. Elimination

In Popper’s words,
“The first step, ‘problem,’ arises when some kind of disturbance takes place—a disturbance either of innate expectations or of expectations that have been discovered or learnt through trial and error. The second stage in our model consists of ‘attempted solutions’—that is, attempts to solve the problem. The third stage in our model is the ‘elimination’ of unsuccessful solutions.”

Popper had strong words about observation;
“The old theory of science taught, and still teaches, that the starting point for science is our sense perception or sensory observation. This sounds at first thoroughly reasonable and persuasive, but it is fundamentally wrong. One can easily show this by stating the thesis: without a problem, no observation. If I asked you: ‘Please, observe!’ then linguistic usage would require you to answer by asking me: ‘Yes, but what? What am I supposed to observe?’ In other words, you ask me to set you a problem that can be solved through your observation; and if I do not give you a problem but only an object, that is already something but it is by no means enough. For instance, if I say to you: ‘Please look at your watch,’ you will still not know what I actually want to have observed. But things are different once I set you the most trivial problem. Perhaps you will not be interested in the problem, but at least you will know what you are supposed to find out through your perception or observation.”

The standards on the production floor are an important aspect for observation. They tell us what the sequence of operations is, what the takt time is, and what the standard work in process should be. Another important aspect to look out for is muri or overburden. If an operator is doing an operation where she is required to lift heavy loads, or if she has to reach out to grab something, then it is an opportunity to improve the work. Popper’s advice brings to mind that when we are out on the shop floor and observing, we need to know what we should be looking for.

I will finish off with another great 20-century philosopher, Bertrand Russell, and his somber turkey story, which I have paraphrased here:

There was once a turkey that lived on a farm, and the turkey was scientifically oriented. He observed that the farmer gives him food every day at 7 a.m. Since he was a smart turkey, he knew that he needed to take a lot of data points. His observations were made on cloudy days, rainy days, sunny days, weekdays, weekends, and all kind of days. Months go by, and by now the turkey feels that he has enough data and feels confident that tomorrow the farmer is going to feed him at 7 a.m. However, the next day was Christmas Eve, and the turkey was not fed but instead had his throat cut.

Always keep on learning....


About The Author

Harish Jose’s picture

Harish Jose

Harish Jose has more than seven years experience in the medical device field. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri-Rolla (U.S.), where he obtained a master’s degree in manufacturing engineering and published two articles. Harish is an ASQ member with multiple ASQ certifications, including Quality Engineer, Six Sigma Black Belt, and Reliability Engineer. He is a subject matter expert in lean, data science, database programming, and industrial experiments. Harish publishes frequently on his blog harishnotebook. He can be reached on LinkedIn.


Come On - - Let's Get With

Come On - - Let's Get With It, OK? Go read the book and you'll find the answers. Check it out and let us know what we should read. +++ What Book? What's its title? Author? Where do I get it? Do we really know what the question is for which we're searching for an answer? You've shared good insights. Thinking is happening.... And, successes will continue!