Experiments are just conscious, formal ways to gain experience.  

C. West Churchman (1913-2004) observed that “each action [by a manager of a corporation] could be construed as an ‘experiment’ …[and] is an attempt to not only improve the financial status of the corporation, but also to increase the understanding of the way in which the corporation behaves and ought to behave.” (Design of Inquiring Systems, 1971, New York: Basic Books, p. 271.)

Churchman’s advice holds generally for any organization, not just for-profit corporations. Every executive and manager should be conducting experiments to increase understanding.

But by what method?

The basics of experimental design are covered by The Model for Improvement, our friendly universal guide for learning.

Here’s the framework—a good experiment needs a clear aim, explicit measures to assess the results of the experiment, and changes (for example, factor level settings in a two-level factorial design).

You then should outline how you will do the experiment and what you expect to happen—who will do what, how and when; and don’t forget to state your predictions. That’s the Plan.


Do the experiment, noting surprises along the way;

Study the results and how well you followed the plan;

Act to repeat the experiment, perhaps with specific changes or refinements or abandon one or more of the factors as not useful and run a modified follow-up experiment.

Simple to state, hard to do well. But following the Model for Improvement increases the odds that you and I can design effective experiments and learn to do a better job as experimenters, improving as we go.


I saw this statue of Adam Smith in Edinburgh last week and was carrying with me six chapters of Smith’s the The Wealth of Nations (published by Penguin Books in their Great Ideas series, “The Invisible Hand by Adam Smith”, London, 2008).

I started to read.  

Smith’s insight on the division of labor outlined in the first two chapters of The Wealth of Nations is profound.  When labor is divided into specific tasks, productivity tends to increase with specialization of effort and attention. Of course, there is a need for coordination to assure efficient and effective production but Smith observed that in 18th century manufacturing, the cost of hand-offs between specialized workers was far outweighed by the benefit of reduced complexity and task changeovers by an individual worker attempting to do all the tasks himself.

Smith plausibly claimed an additional benefit from workers focused on one or at most a small number of tasks, reflecting the modern psychological view that human attention is finite and easily exhausted:

 “Men are much more likely to discover easier and readier methods of attaining any object when the whole attention of their minds is directed towards that single object than when it is dissipated among a great variety of things.  But in consequence of the division of labor, the whole of every man’s attention comes naturally to be directed towards some very simple object.   It is naturally to be expected, therefore, that some one or the other of those who are employed in each particular branch of labor should soon find out easier and readier methods of performing their own particular work, wherever the nature of it admits to such improvement.  A great part of the machines made use of in those manufactures in which labor is most subdivided, were originally the inventions of common workmen, who, being each of them employed in some very simple operation, naturally turned their thoughts toward finding out easier and readier methods of performing it.”  (Penguin edition, pp. 8-9).

The innovations act as a catalyst to productivity, potentially driving a virtuous cycle of improvement.

Opportunity for Leaders and Managers
Smith also noted that some improvements come from synthesizers: “…some [improvements arise] by …those who are called philosophers or men of speculation, whose trade it is not to do anything, but to observe everything; and who, upon that account, are often capable of combining together the powers of the most distant and dissimilar objects.” (Penguin edition, p 10).

These synthesizers work in the realm of ideas, not specifically manufacturing specific goods.  They function as design engineers for processes and products.

Leaders and managers have the opportunity to act as synthesizers, observing how people in their organization do the work, the problems they face and the innovations they propose, to find ideas worth combining and spreading.


 While I believe the Model for Improvement provides a useful general foundation for improving any situation, specific problem-solving  methods  that call for standardization are particularly useful.  These methods can help people to act to reduce defects and build reliable performance into  on-going operations.

Improvement and problem-solving are linked but not identical in application

You can pose any problem as an improvement opportunity:  a partial or full solution to a problem will yield a better state of affairs than the unsolved problem.   Hence a solved problem will have improved the system in which the problem arose.

You can also pose any improvement opportunity as a problem:  in improvement, you seek to get closer to an aim, starting from where you are.  Hence, you start with a gap between where you are and where you want to get.   That gap is the problem.

So it looks like improvement and problem-solving are equivalent in the sense that you can express any problem as an improvement opportunity and any improvement opportunity as a problem.

The Model for Improvement is an algorithm to improve any situation.  If you accept that improvement and problem-solving are equivalent, the Model for Improvement can be applied to any problem.

Does that mean the Model for Improvement is the best algorithm for solving any problem?  No.  In some settings, it may be more efficient to tackle problems directly.

Types of Problems

Gerry Nadler in The Planning and Design Approach (Wiley:  1981) — abbreviated PDA — describes seven types of problems, aligned with a list of seven “human purposeful activities”:

1. Assure self-preservation and survival of the species:  self-preservation
2. Operate and supervise an existing solution or system:  operate and supervise
3. Create or restructure a situation-specific solution or system: plan and design
4. Search for generalizations:  research
5. Evaluate performance of previous solutions or other purposeful activities:  evaluate
6. Gain skills or acquire knowledge about existing information and generalizations:  learn
7. Experience leisure:  leisure.

As Nadler points out, the “types are not mutually exclusive:  each may be involved with, and depend on, the other.  For example, successful planning and design frequently requires, at various points in a project, research, evaluation, learning, and operating and supervising.” (p. 19, PDA)

The Model for Improvement can be applied to each of the seven types, more or less efficiently.

Operating and Supervising; Planning and Design

Two activities from Nadler’s list account for much of the work by organizations:  Operating and Supervising (O&S) and Planning and Design (P&D).

“O&S concerns systems and solutions that people participate in routinely, expecting fairly standardized results.” (p. 19 PDA)

 “Planning and design activities result in custom-made solutions, policies, and designs, that restructure existing systems or create new ones….P&D is concerned with imagining, designing, and implementing new and restructured systems and solutions, O&S with maintaining them.  The latter stresses standardization and routine, the former flexibility and innovation.” (p. 20, PDA)

The Model for Improvement works well right off the shelf for Planning and Design activities as defined by Nadler.  


However, Model for Improvement applied to Operating and Supervising problems can cause users to stumble. Here’s why: Holding the gains is implicit in the Model for Improvement but improvers usually need explicit guidance.

On the other hand, there are various frameworks developed to solve problems in O&S settings that give explicit advice about holding the gains--for example, Lean’s A3 problem-solving, Six Sigma's Design-Measure-Analyze-Improve-Control model, and the QC Story (Chapter 10, Statistical Methods for Quality Improvement, AOTS, Tokyo 1985.)  

Standardized work is one way to hold the gains of a proposed solution, a systematic approach to teaching, monitoring and assuring reliable work practices. A useful reference for healthcare applications: Getting to Standard Work in Healthcare (2012) by Patrick Graupp and Martha Purrier, CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL.

A hint that you may be working in an O&S setting is whether it feels natural to characterize problems in terms of defects. A defect is a specific type of problem, an undesired result of a job, as succinctly described by Kume and Takehashi, authors of the QC Story chapter in the AOTS book cited above.

Interim Conclusion

In work with colleagues these days, I now try to understand the type of situation or problem they’re tackling.   I use the Model for Improvement as my fundamental mental framework across all settings but I especially appreciate and support the application of specific problem-solving frameworks in operating and supervising situations.

Back to top