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Objective vs. Subjective (+MP3)

Being able to recognize objective vs. subjective information is an important skill for individuals in Lean companies.

Objective vs. Subjective Definitions

  • Objective: Information or data that is based in fact. Often numerical. It can be verified by an independent third party. Math tests are generally objective in nature.
  • Subjective: Information or opinions that are open to interpretation. Generally, subjective information is seen through the eyes of the person collecting or presenting it. Literature essay tests are subjective in nature.

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As a general rule, objective facts are much better than subjective information for decision making in continuous improvement efforts. Objective facts are indisputable. The time a process takes, the frequency of stock outs, and a part’s diameter can all be measured. Any trained person can take the same measurement and come up with the same result.

That measurability and repeatability makes the information extremely useful when changing processes. The before and after metrics can be measured, and there is objective proof of which is better.

More importantly, objective facts are more likely to have an absolute right and wrong than subjective opinions. Most people accept that higher quality is better than lower quality, all else being equal.

Subjective opinions, on the other hand, can lead to problems. While many opinions are necessary, especially in interpersonal relationships, strategy development, and policy setting, in most cases, subjective thinking is a problem solving handicap.

Opinions (subjective) tend to have a significant amount of bias, and are generally formed instinctively. Many times instincts are honed and can be accurate. Often, though, they are at odds with what facts and data tell us.

Morgan D. Jones, a former CIA analyst, lists several reasons why subjective reasoning can be flawed (paraphrased from The Thinkers Toolkit):

  1. Emotions influence thoughts. Our mood can change the facts for us.
  2. We take ‘mental shortcuts’ which skip facts.
  3. We overuse patterns. We assume that because something happened before, it will again.
  4. We make assumptions and are influenced by bias. Previous opinions of things influence what we are currently looking at.
  5. We create explanations where there are none. We don’t like vacuums. We fit explanations in, even if there is contradiction, because we don’t like that void.
  6. We weigh evidence we like more than that which we don’t. If something supports our belief, we will put more stock in that. This happens often in kaizen. If there is a glitch, it is weighed much more heavily than the successes by those that don’t want the change.
  7. We support our beliefs, even if others consider opposing evidence to be overwhelming. If we believe something in our hearts, we will not change, even with evidence against it. This is extremely common when trying to convince people to reduce lot sizes.

Of course, we do have to make some decisions based on subjective opinions. Hiring decisions, for example, while rooted in objective facts, ultimately come down to being a subjective choice about which candidate will best fill the job. We may score people, and try to apply a rigid system of evaluation, but a numerical decision laid on top of a series of opinions doesn’t magically become an objective fact.

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3 Comments

  • Great post. So often, software developers complain about (the business) management making decisions formulated mostly on opinion which as you point out can be fraught with error.

    However, it is commonly a situation where “data” is presented to this same management without any indication of causality – which forces management to interpret as best they can. We in software development have an obligation to present information (objectively analyzed data showing causality) so that management can make objective rather than subjective decisions.

    I’m going to use (with your permission and attribution) excerpts of your posting in my presentation to the ASQ Software Division next month where I will present about how to really show results of software quality.

    Thanks for the post!

    • Jeff Hajek says:

      Carol,
      Thanks for the comment. You made me realize a major oversight in the term. I didn’t address the problem of subjective opinions being presented as fact. I’ll have to add that in at some point (though, in truth, I can’t remember the last time I actually did something ‘at some point’).

      Yes–feel free to use the excerpts. Nice to be able to help out a great group. (A plug is always appreciated!)

      By the way, I took a quick look at your blog. Can’t spend much time on it right now with a few client deadlines coming up, but the first impression was great. If anyone else wants to check it out, just click on Carol’s name above.

      Thanks again for the comment.
      Jeff

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