> Posted by Kim Wilson, Fellow, Center for Emerging Market Enterprises and the Feinstein International Center, Tufts University

“Everything should be as simple as it can be, but not simpler.” This aphorism credited to Albert Einstein inspires our call to Lean Research.

Two Fridays ago at MIT a group of 50 of us met to hash out some principles that, if followed, might generate better research in development and social science contexts. NGOs, universities, foundations, corporations, government, and multi-lateral agencies were represented in our group.

Our analogy of choice was Toyota. If “the Toyota way,” or lean manufacturing as it has come to be called, could cause profound and beneficial disruptions in production processes, might lean research cause equally profound and beneficial disruptions in research processes?

Much of our discussion that day traveled along four paths, which grew into a starter set of principles:

Lean Research is right-sized. The sample and method are perfectly suited to the research objectives. Unnecessary questions are cut, and necessary activities are added in. It also means much homework must be done to ensure the study is necessary at all and that the information could not have been gathered through secondary research or through key informants.

Lean Research is relevant. The information gathered must be understandable to a wide range of stakeholders, including the subjects researched. It must be accessible and actionable, able to drive changes in policy or practice. Again, this means much homework must be done before the research even begins. Researchers must identify stakeholders who will actually use the information.

Lean Research is respectful, even delightful. Human subjects might enjoy a six-hour interview during harvest or they may not. Enjoyment depends on the benefits they get from the research experience (in Lean Research, we assume every research is a treatment). How do we maximize the experience of the human subject to get better, more accurate results?

Lean Research is rigorous. As one of our colleagues from MIT’s JPAL said: the most respectful research is rigorous. And that is true. Research that uses faulty protocols is a complete waste of a subject’s time and undermines findings that could advance knowledge. Lean Research does not permit cutting corners. Samples must be representative of the population, and methods unbiased. The research must be reproducible.

Alex Counts of Grameen Foundation goes a step further to ask: how do we give subjects the chance to rebut or confirm findings from their perspective (see this for his ideas)? He also proposes an annual top ten examples of research that has driven practice and/or policy, which seems like a great idea.

What does this all have to do with financial inclusion? First, many folks in the room represented institutions that dealt directly with financial inclusion such as Bankable Frontier Associates, CGAP, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, SEEP, The MasterCard Foundation, and MasterCard Worldwide.

Second, it was easy to see how Lean Research principles might guide intelligence gathering in financial inclusion. For example, if a large-sample survey produces roughly the same evidence as a series of financial diaries, then such a survey may be more right-sized (efficient), while still following a rigorous system of protocols. If a study team has the objective of helping an MNO and a bank to develop a successful mobile money platform, then the team is obliged to find the result categories that are actionable or relevant, before even conducting the study. In fact to inform the study design, they must map backward from the go/no-go decisions that suppliers would need in order to take their next step. In terms of respect of the human subject, how about this example?

A gift that people like – but rarely get – is a portrait. So during the second round of our survey, we took individual portraits of each grain trader (415 in all) and then distributed them during the debriefing phase. When I visited one trader he said “But how does this help me? I have four wives so I need one for me and one for each of them!” (And the researcher, Dr. Jenny Aker complied.)

The next steps of our initiative are emerging. Several participants volunteered to crystallize Lean Research principles and guidance in a clear, readable way, so that they could form a kind of checklist. Others wanted to push forward the idea of a prize for Lean Research. A few agreed to identify research that are starting soon so that they may press them through the Lean Research sieve, with peers commenting along the way. MIT and Tufts are interested in convening a process mapping of the experience of the human subject, just as one would map a consumer experience. We are confident that other expressions of Lean Research will bubble from our participants and we hope from well beyond those who could attend.

If you are reading this post and were not among us on August 1 but would like to be part future conversations, please contact us: leanresearch-admin@mit.edu.

kimwilsonKim Wilson is a lecturer at The Fletcher School and a Fellow with the Center for Emerging Market Enterprises and the Feinstein International Center at Tufts University.

Have you read?

The Holy Grail of Microfinance Research?

Measuring (and Missing) Financial Inclusion

Measuring Financial Inclusion: The “Basic Set” Solution