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Why your experiments are not experiments at all

New sequence to an old model

Ten years ago, I became a Zen Buddhist and began to practice mindfulness.

Summed up in one word, mindfulness translates into acceptance.

When we practice mindfulness, our thoughts tune into what we’re sensing in the present moment rather than rehashing the past or imagining the future.[1]

As a Lean Sensei, I have found mindfulness to be the secret sauce to proper application of the Deming Cycle, i.e. experimentation.

The Deming Cycle is often taught at PDSA or PDCA, but this is incorrect. How can you plan for an experiment when you do not have a proper understanding of the current state? Thus, I teach the Deming Cycle as SAPD. In other words,

  • First, you need to study the current state of how the process is done
  • Then you can see the necessary action that needs to be taken, i.e. the hypothesis
  • At which point, you can create a plan on how to test said hypothesis
  • At which point, you can test said hypotheses

Now that we have the correct sequence of the Deming Cycle, let’s properly apply mindfulness.

How to apply mindfulness to Study and Act

In The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, Thich Nhat Hanh explains two aspects that allow us to calm, rest, and heal: shamatha or stopping and vipashyana or looking deeply. These two aspects must also be applied when studying a process.

Observation is often viewed as a non-value add activity. Leaders rarely have routine time to observe processes, i.e. shamatha, and, thus, lack an understanding of the current state. Even if time is set aside, their ability to look deeply, i.e. vipashyana, is compromised by judgement. They often go with eyes for right or wrong. They need to go with eyes for what is. When they practice enough at doing so, not only will they see what is, but they will also see what actions need to be taken based on what obstacles are observed. These typically fall into one of the following categories:

  1. There is no standard in place, leading to unnecessary variability
  2. There is a standard in place, but it cannot be followed due to environmental factors, i.e. missing, misplaced, or non-functioning equipment
  3. There is a standard in place, but an employee is not sufficiently trained to execute
  4. There is a standard in place, but there is missing staff due to a lack of coordination, poor staffing, or absenteeism

How to apply mindfulness to Plan and Do

When planning to test a hypothesis, it is important to create an environment where the person who will conduct the experiment, i.e. the experimenter, can be present in the moment.

This translates into putting the experimenter in a position where the following can be accomplished

  1. They are not dragged into the past and have permission to perform the work in a new way
  2. They can act free of pressure from making the experiment “work”

The first can be established by clearly defining the new standard and ensuring the experimenter has been trained on it properly, which also means guaranteeing the right environment is in place to conduct the experiment.

The second can be established by leadership giving the experimenter permission to “fail” and putting in place a mechanism to capture obstacles that get in the way of the hypothesis working. Ideally, an observer should be present during the experiment to capture obstacles, freeing up the experimenter to truly execute the experiment. Those obstacles will be used to refine the hypothesis or create a new one to be tested in the next experiment.

When these conditions are not present, the hypothesis is never truly tested. This begs the question, how many hypotheses that could have been successful have been abandoned?


Although I have been practicing mindfulness for 10 years, anyone can put into practice they key points found in this article immediately. In fact, a “newbie” with a checklist can be more effective than an “expert.” As Shunryu Suzuki states,

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.

Here is a simple checklist you can create to ensure mindfulness is properly incorporated into your experimentation:

  • SAPD; not PDSA
  • Stop: create routine time to go and observe the current state
  • Look Deeply: Go with eyes for what is
  • Create the right environment so that the experimenter can test the hypothesis
  • Allow the experimenter to “fail” and capture obstacles as opportunities to refine the next experiment

[1] https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic/mindfulness/definition

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