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Learning from Sherlock Holmes

Published: 4 Dec 2018

Jo Dowdall, Author at Catalyst Consulting, explores what Lean Six Sigma practitioners can learn from Sherlock Holmes.

I’ve had the privilege of working with a client organisation situated just around the corner from 221b Baker Street, the address of fictional detective Sherlock Holmes. 

First introduced to the world in 1887, Sherlock and his mysteries are enduringly popular. There are lots of theories to explain why we love a good mystery. One attraction is the appeal of the procedural aspects of detective books and dramas – where we see exactly how the mysteries get solved and gain insights into the methods used. This is what appeals to me, and I have noted that there is a lot a Lean Six Sigma practitioner can learn from the world’s first consulting detective. 

Let’s investigate…

Let go of preconceived ideas

Sherlock reminds us of the importance of staying objective and keeping an open mind to avoid jumping to conclusions. He said: “It is of the first importance not to allow your judgment to be biased by personal qualities.” We often see people jump to conclusions about the causes of process problems before an analysis has been undertaken. Which leads nicely to my next point.

Use data

“Data! Data! Data!” yells Sherlock Holmes in The Adventure of the Copper Beeches, “I can’t make bricks without clay.” Observing things and collecting information is his starting point, and he observes that “it is a capital mistake to theorise before you have all the evidence.” Using appropriate data is key to understanding what is really going on.

Formulate and test your hypotheses

In solving a mystery, if several explanations presented themselves, Sherlock tests them – one by one. In The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier, Sherlocksays: “One tries test after test until one or other of them had a convincing amount of support.” This is exactly the approach used in the ‘analyse’ phase of a Lean Six Sigma project where teams are encouraged to test the possible causes of an effect in a process, until evidence to support their involvement is found. 


Making time for analysis is important. In The Hound of the Baskervilles, Sherlock’s partner and the story’s narrator Dr Watson commented: “Seclusion and solitude were very necessary for my friend in those hours of intense mental concentration during which he weighed every particle of evidence, constructed alternative theories, balanced one against the other, and made up his mind as to which points were essential and which immaterial.” While seclusion and solitude are not encouraged (quite the opposite in fact), it isbeneficial to put the hours in. Think of this as an investment - the time spent identifying the real causes of issues will undoubtedly be less than the time spent having to re-visit the issue.

Use your team members

Sherlock doesn’t understand emotions and so Watson’s human insights and people skills are most helpful to him. Sherlock also has the Baker Street Irregulars (a network of street kids used to gather intelligence), which he uses “to go everywhere, see everything, and overhear everyone” (The Sign of Four).  Involvement and engagement of people in the know is vital too in a Lean Six Sigma project. As is a balance of skills – from the technical aspects of problem-solving through to the skills required to work with people and manage change.

Sharpen your skills

Sherlock tells Watson that education never ends. Lean Six Sigma practitioners will find that every project yields lessons learned. There is much to be learned from practical experience, but also from sources such as training, reading, and networking with other practitioners. I am finding lots of inspiration at the moment from the Extraordinary Business Book Clubpodcast. 

Value imagination 

As well as logic, intuition and imagination are valued by Sherlock. He is critical of those who lack these qualities. Instincts are important, as are imagination and creativity. Imagination and analysis are not contradictory, they are in fact complementary. Imagination can support analysis, for examples, in developing different hypotheses to test and new ways to slice and dice data. It is also of use when finding ways to display the results and communicate the findings.

Don’t give up!

“There is nothing more stimulating than a case where everything goes against you!” (The Hound of the Baskervilles). But what do you do when you feel like giving up? Revisit the problem statement to remind yourself of the practical problem you are trying to solve. Your sponsor or champion should also be a source of encouragement.

This article was first published by Catalyst Consulting

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