I work to support lean transformation in corporate America, so when I tell people I have a MFA in sculpture, I’m used to the odd glances that I receive and the questions that generally follow: “Sculpture? You studied art? How could that possibly be useful for helping people improve business processes?” Or, one of my favorite questions, “Wasn’t studying art a waste of time?”

In reality, nothing could be farther from the truth. And here’s why.

In Lean, we are used to thinking about PDCA, the PLAN – DO – CHECK –ACT/ADJUST cycle, taught by Dr. W. Edwards Deming, as the scientific method of “hypothesis, experiment, and evaluate,” developed by 17th century scientist, Francis Bacon. Teaching PDCA to team members gives them both a standard way to think about problems, and a standard, “scientific” method to solve problems. But it also does something else, something I believe is even more important: the consistent use of PDCA thinking develops our team members’ (and our own) creativity and creative problem-solving ability. And this is where the scientific method runs headlong into the artistic process.

Because what do artists do? What is the real “work” of artists? Artists combine knowledge and information gained from their experiences in the world to come up with new ideas. PLAN. Then they use whatever medium they work in, whether it’s clay, steel, wood, or canvas and paint, to turn these new ideas they “see” in their minds into reality. It’s something new and different every time. DO. Then the artist steps back and evaluates how closely the piece reflects the idea they had in their mind. CHECK. And finally, because the finished piece, that new reality, never totally captures what was “seen” in their imagination, artists use the new information they gain from the experience of making art to generate new ideas for pieces. ACT/ADJUST.

Karyn Ross
(Left) Empty Half Full, 2013. Glass bottles, pins, needles, string, rice, fortunes, photos and a Toyota Tercel key.
(Right) Self-portrait, 2010. Spools of thread, pins, needles.

With each new work, artists reflect the old way of thinking and doing things while creating a new way of thinking and doing things.

Figuring out how to make a sculpture balance so that it can stand, and figuring out how to make a business process more visible and efficient require the same type of creative thinking ability: the ability to see the work and solve problems by coming up with new ideas. In order to solve problems in business, big or small, we need to teach our team members how to use their imaginations, think creatively, and generate new ideas using knowledge and information that they already have. The best way to do this is by modeling and teaching PDCA, the scientific method and artistic process.

Albert Einstein said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” When we develop our team members’ creative problem-solving ability by teaching them PDCA, we give them the ability to generate new ideas and solve problems in new and creative ways.

So what do you think? Is PDCA the scientific method? The artistic process? Or both?