Experimental Strategy: a Blueprint. Step 1

By | October 6, 2014

What are we doing? How do we move forward?

“Ready, fire, aim”… Not the best way to start a program – but WAY too common. The Japanese have the maxim “aim slow, shoot fast”. It seems to work better.

To get the most useful information out of experimental program, a few hours of thought and preparation at the beginning are worth days or weeks of agony at the end. A brilliant chemist friend once remarked “ a week in the laboratory can sometimes save you an hour in the library”.

Goals and objectives

The very first step in an experimental strategy is to define the goals of the project and the objective of the experimental program. At this stage of the program, the focus should be on diagnosis, not on solutions. A good problem statement avoids looking to the solution prematurely, and helps make sure the right problem is solved.

Even though you may be working in the lab, the program must refer up to the goals of the business.

The Flowdown Tool – Business Goals

 A tool called “flowdown” is useful for integrating the project into the company goals and assuring a return on investment. It answers the following questions:

Who are your customers?

  • What is the flow of customer needs from the ultimate customer to you?
  • What are the goals for each specific customer need?
  • What is their priority?
  • How are those goals measured?
  • What is the specification for success?

An example for a new oil refining technology might be:

Customers

  • General public
  • Truckers
  • Refineries
  • Oil Companies
  • Company Marketing
  • Product R&D
Needs

  • Lower Pollution
  • Lower cost
  • Easier to process, less restrictions
  • High profit margin
  • Convincing case
  • Use of new technology

Warning: there are usually multiple needs at each level!!

Laboratory Strategy

From the business goals, we move to the laboratory  experimental strategy. We can ask:

  1. What is already known about the system?
  1. Have the tools of process mapping, root cause analysis, and Pareto Analysis been used to make sure the right things are being studied?
  1. Will some business action result from this experiment? (If not, why are you wasting your time??)
  1. Is this Exploration or Exploitation? Is this just at the beginning of the study, trying to find out what factors (control variables) have a strong influence on the system? Or is there basic knowledge of the system and the objective is optimization?
  1. Is it essential to get the properties to their maximum levels or is consistency more important?

Once these are clear, the laboratory objectives can be defined. An objective should be unbiased, specific, measurable, and of practical consequence.

  1. Unbiased: the team must encourage participation by knowledgeable and interested people with diverse perspectives.
  1. Specific and measurable: the objectives should be detailed, preferably quantitative, and stated so that it is clear whether they have been met.
  1. Of practical consequence: something will be done differently as a result of this experiment.

Another good way to know an objective? Each objective will start with a verb. Here are some good ones: “Increase,” “find,” “decrease,” “speed up,” “implement.” Start an objective with one of these words, and then use numbers to make it measurable.

In the next section, we’ll put some reality about those words “make it measurable”.

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