Blending Art and Science

These two ways of gaining knowledge often come together when manufacturing is most successful.

Popular culture tends to depict the artist and the scientist as opposites: The artist is a passionate, mysteriously inspired soul working fitfully in the cluttered studio, and the scientist is the dispassionate, highly logical mind working methodically in the austere laboratory. We admire both types when their efforts produce brilliant results—the artist revealing secrets about the emotional world of our inner being and the scientist discovering truths about the natural world and its phenomena. We also tend to mistrust the scientist for being coldly objective or unfeeling and the artist for being wildly subjective and inscrutable.

For many manufacturing companies, blending and balancing art and science is a necessity. It is a key part of their success. Because manufacturing can embody the best of both fields, it can be a particularly healthy and gratifying environment for the well-rounded individual. Creativity and inventiveness should flourish in our shops and plants.

I suspect that most shop owners and plant managers do not evaluate their operations along these lines. Make this an opportunity to take a fresh review of the culture within your manufacturing organization. Here are five elements of “artistic” awareness that indicate valuable strengths.

• An understanding that design has functional and aesthetic values that manufacturing processes must fulfill. Customer appeal and acceptance are at stake.

• A respect for imaginative thinking and individuality. Personal self-expression comes through in quality workmanship and pride.

• An appreciation for humor, wit and playfulness. Good ideas languish in a dull workplace.

• A preference for simplicity in form, clarity in meaning, harmony in patterns and unity in purpose. Keeping things fresh with variety is a nice touch.

• A habit of visualization that is practiced by all employees. It promotes attention to detail and big-picture thinking.

Likewise, here are five elements of “scientific” practices to look for in every workplace.

• An eagerness to measure, measure, measure. Recording and analyzing measurements are the basis for effective control and improvement.

• An earnest cultivation of skills in math.

• A reliance on testing and a commitment to acting on results. Questioning assumptions and being alert to hidden variables is important here.

• A willingness to experiment and explore new methods, tools and materials after researching what others have learned. Workers should be encouraged to make suggestions, be curious, be open to change and be unafraid to express doubts.

• An ability to explain the reasons for doing things a certain way. People who “know that they know” are more confident, consistent and engaged.

I might add a sixth element to each of these lists: A lively sense of wonder in all we do.

Managers in any business understand that their effectiveness depends on the knowledge that science and art provide. Facts and measurements are essential, as are insight and empathy.