The Process Improvement Blog

What shape comes next? 100% of people don't know!

What shape comes next? 100% of people don't know!

by Rob Collins on 6th February 2015, 0 comments

These sort of puzzles seem to be immensely popular on Linkedin. I see them attracting hundreds of responses. And when ever I see one it brings to mind the story of Russell the Turkey which I tell occasionally on my courses. It goes like this .. Russell the Turkey was an exceptional bird by many accounts....


Russell the Turkey was an exceptional bird by many accounts .. not least of all his own.

Russell the Turkey started to notice a pattern which seemed to be important. Several mornings in a row, when Russell woke up, the farmer came and brought him fresh seed to eat! Being a most exceptional bird Russell formed a useful hypothesis: “The farmer will bring me fresh seed each morning when I wake up”. Russell decided to make a few more observations. And indeed, each morning shortly after he woke up. the farmer did bring him fresh seed.

As each morning passed, Russell's confidence in his hypothesis increased. In fact, after 150 trials, with exactly the same result, he was pretty much ready to elevate his hypothesis several notches to a conclusion! The farmer will bring me fresh seed each morning when I wake up!

By 350 trials, with exactly the same result Russell finally promoted his hypothesis to a law. “It is a fundamental law of nature” concluded Russell with triumph “..that when I wake up in the morning the farmer will bring me me fresh seed”.

Russell basked in the glory of his stupendous (for a Turkey) intellectual achievement for a further 14 days. And then, on the 364th day something remarkable happened.

And then, on the 364th day something remarkable happened....

The farmer came out to Russell's coop as normal – but this time she wrung his neck, plucked him and gave him to her husband to put in the pot for Christmas dinner!

Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) for Russell there were a few things about his universe that he did not comprehend.

Russell might have done better if he had attended a few courses on Lean Six Sigma – or at least introductory statistics. However, it may be that he was like me in that, although I have attended many classes on statistics (first as an undergraduate in Physics, then as a doctoral student in Psychology, then as a Green Belt and Black Belt in Lean Six Sigma) I find I can't actually remember much of it. I have to constantly revise and practice each time I do a new project.

Annoyingly I have to constantly refer to the little crib-sheet I drew up to tell me which statistical test to use. I would love to be able to remember, by heart, whether I am meant to be using a 'Wilcoxon Signed Ranks' (difference in ordinal, related data) or a 'Mann-Whitney' (difference in ordinal, unrelated data). But (and don't tell any of my clients this) it constantly alludes me – and I have to turn to the crib sheet.

However, I have one great advantage over Russell the Turkey: I have some inkling of the level of my own ignorance. At least, at very least, I know that I need a crib sheet – and I know when to look at it! (Although, now I think about it “Smarter than a Turkey” and “Uses a crib sheet” are probably not the best strap-lines for somebody who makes their livelihood as a consultant in Process Excellence).

Nevertheless.. back to the original puzzle. The answer is, as you may or may not have guessed is “Blue car”. Here is the pattern:

The answer to the first question is 'Blue Car'. But what comes next?

And its true! 100% of people don't know the right answer. They think they know – but they have not collected enough data to be really certain about their conclusion. And without some knowledge of statistics you can't really know how certain you should be about your conclusions from a few observations.

A final thought. It seems that many people like these little puzzles that appear on Linkedin and other social media. People seem to like brain-teasers that provide some data from which you are challenged to draw some inferences. Then you are asked to complete some action – commit to your conclusion by typing in the answer. Then you get some feedback as others to applaud or mock. It's fun!

My thought is this: why not bring that same sense of fun into the every-day job of improving our business processes? Collect some data .. think about what it means .. draw a conclusion .. act on those conclusions .. get feedback. Rather like brain-teaser puzzles on Linkedin – but with the end result of having a faster, more efficient business and ultimately more profit. What's not to like?

* The author apologises for any fowl language used in this blog posting.

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Rob Collins

Rob is a Principal Consultant for Donox Ltd. He holds a PhD in Software Engineering, Psychology and Training and an MBA from Henley Business School. He gained his Lean Six Sigma Black Belt whilst working as Process Authority for Lockheed Martin IS&S in the UK. As well as presenting courses and running workshops for Donox, Rob also teaches courses for Oxford University on their MSc in Software Engineering. His particular interest is 'coal-face' business process improvement - running workshops, documenting business processes, running improvement project and teaching Lean Six Sigma.

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