Essay by Mike Shesterkin, Exec. Director
In previous articles, we covered ideas having to do with how we go about learning, acquiring knowledge and the critical role science – and in particular, the scientific method – plays in our collective understanding of the world around us. What we’ve been doing is building a solid foundation for appreciating what Dr. Deming and others, such as Peter Senge have taught about the importance of learning to the organization. In our case, the organization is a business.
In this article, we’ll get into what I’ve come to know, through experience, about learning, science and how it is applied in the world of business.
In the Beginning
I began my professional career after graduating from what was, at the time, Ferris State College. Located in Big Rapids, MI, Ferris was founded in 1884 as the Big Rapids Industrial School by W.N. Ferris and H.G. Ferris. When I enrolled, it was a college centered on what I would call vocational training. While Ferris had four-year programs (the school of pharmacology, at least back then, graduated a significant number of the state’s pharmacists) most of the programs were two years in length and focused on training folks for technical positions.
When I enrolled at Ferris, I had plans to become a medical technician, which required an Associate’s Degree. My parents were pretty clear: I would get two years of college, and then would have to find a job so as to become “a productive member of society”. This ought to give you a sense of how I behaved prior to getting this message.
Sometime after my first quarter, I visited the counselor’s office to discuss my plans. The counselor informed me the med. tech. program was full and I’d have to be wait listed. In the same breath – and before I could tell the counselor my father was not interested paying for a two-year degree at a three-year rate – the counselor told me about a small program called Industrial Chemistry Technology (ICT). It had plenty of openings and seemed a good fit for someone like me. That moment changed my life.
The ICT program was led by Professor Norm Peterson, or “Stormin Norman” as his students were known to call him. Mr. Peterson was my first, and perhaps best teacher and mentor. He started the ICT program in the late 1950’s after a stint in the Navy during WWII and an industrial career as a chemist. Of the many things Mr. Peterson instilled in me – or helped me find – is the love of discovery, of finding things that can be tested and known to be true. In essence, a love for applied science – in the physical world.
Science and Industry
After leaving Ferris, I started to work in the paint industry. Paint manufacture, which is about as old as history itself, is part of what’s known as the “chemical process industry”. This segment of the chemical business is concerned primarily with making products from basic chemicals and their intermediates. I worked in what is called the product development lab of an automotive original equipment (OEM) paint supplier. In other words, I worked on improving the paint used in automotive assembly plants. I didn’t work by myself, of course, but was part of a team of people working with essentially the same objective: improving product performance.
The industrial practice of product development has its legacy in the work of Thomas Edison. Edison and Henry Ford were very close friends. What Edison did was apply Ford’s assembly line process – the industrial scale division of labor – to the practice of experimental science. In other words, rather than one person, working alone in a laboratory attempting to build a better mousetrap, Edison broke down the process into segments and employed teams of people doing essentially the same thing: applying science to making a product. The first commercial light bulb is an example of this process: Edison had a group or individual focus on making the filament better, while others worked on the glass, the socket and so forth.
We’ll pick-up the story in our next article.