Debbie Aliya's series on critical thinking continues. You can read part 3 here.

Decision Science: Choose with confidence! Of course “deciding” is natural. But stopping to think about how confident the knowledgeable person would be about the data you are basing your decision on is not that natural. There are overlaps here with the systems-thinking concepts we just explored. Even if we don’t have a fully quantified risk-analysis decision tree, understanding potential sources of human error will help alert us to a more thorough analysis.

I used to participate in the Yahoo Groups (this was a while ago!) Root Cause Forum. We had a big discussion about a situation where someone had sprayed some weed killer that, to be effective, needed to sit on the plants for one hour before it rained. He had applied the weed killer to his sidewalk four times, and every time, even though the forecast gave him a clear window, it rained. He did not like my (highly creative!) suggestion that this was a message from Mother Nature that he should give up on the toxic chemical and either hand-weed or hire a deserving neighbor kid to do so. I don’t think anyone else was able to give him a suggestion that he liked either. But clearly he was wasting money on the chemical solution. I don’t think anyone came up with the idea of a flame thrower at the time.

Critical Thinking: As we previously noted, critical thinking has to be cultivated. Critical thinking is best when it comes FIRST, especially when we are considering a specific project requiring thinking. But it is perhaps the most difficult to cultivate. Surprisingly, critical thinking does not have a generally accepted definition. To me, critical thinking refers to the process by which we figure out whether the data-gathering and analysis methods we are planning to use are appropriate to the situation in question. In other words, have we clearly identified the relevant frame of reference?

For some mental tasks, off-the-cuff methods are OK. If you have no food allergies, religious prohibitions or strong opinions on appropriate food stuffs, ordering a restaurant meal may not be a big deal. If you are a mature adult with wide-ranging appreciation for all film types, deciding which movie to go see is also in that category. But selecting a candidate for an open job at a small company requires more thought. Even if the company has a specified methodology for employee selection, allowing time for the “gut” to warn the “brain” is probably worthwhile.

Check back next Monday, Aug. 17, for our next installment. In the meantime, click here if you'd like to hear a podcast where Reed Miller interviews me about failure analysis.