Experience Teaches Nothing Without Theory

Posted on June 11, 2013  Comments (4)

“Experience teaches nothing. In fact there is no experience to record without theory… Without theory there is no learning… And that is their downfall. People copy examples and then they wonder what is the trouble. They look at examples and without theory they learn nothing.”

W. Edwards Deming in The Deming of America




Our brains are good at creating theories, from our experiences, so that our brain can learn. However when this is done only subconsciously we can be led astray. And in complex situations where it is not easy to see the causal relationships (managing human systems for example) it easier for us to be led astray when we are not consciously thinking about the theory driving our thoughts and decisions.

When we are learning (as little kids) we don’t understand that are brain is creating theories to help us learn. But our brain is creating theories and testing them out. What happens when we push the spoon off our high chair? Lets try it 500 times and see. After repeated experiments, we learn a good deal about how gravity will affect objects no matter where you are, no matter if you are in a highchair, or a stroller or a slide or your mother’s lap… We also learn about how people will react (psychology).

Our brains are great at creating theories and testing them even without us understanding that is what is going on. But managers need to push past this subconscious learning to understand the theories behind their actions or they will spend lots of time on activities that are wasteful, similar to the bird in this webcast:

Worm charming is a behavior birds use to encourage worms to go to the surface so the birds can then eat them. The methods used vary, however tapping earth with feet to generate vibrations is widespread. One theory for why the worms go to the surface is the vibrations are similar to those produced by digging moles, which prey on earthworms.

This bird doesn’t understand the theory behind their instinct. Therefore the bird can’t understand that a worm is not likely to burst through the pavement. Too often managers are applying behaviors without understanding the theory (or without evidence showing that the practice based on the theory is effective – failing to practice evidence based management). And so the managers don’t understand that the behavior will not be successful given the conditions they find themselves in.

Related: We are Being Ruined by the Best Efforts of People Who are Doing the Wrong ThingHow We Know What We KnowThe Illusion of Knowledge

4 Responses to “Experience Teaches Nothing Without Theory”

  1. Ron Moen Webcast: Prediction is the Problem « The W. Edwards Deming Institute Blog
    September 9th, 2013 @ 7:52 pm

    […] “Planning requires prediction. Prediction requires a theory.” […]

  2. Deming 101: Understanding Systems « The W. Edwards Deming Institute Blog
    December 9th, 2013 @ 1:45 pm

    […] Problem Solving – The Theory of Knowledge and the PDSA Improvement and Learning Cycle – Experience Teaches Nothing Without Theory – Double Loop Learning Presentation by Benjamin Mitchell – The Art of […]

  3. Effort Without the Right Knowledge and Strategy is Often Wasted « The W. Edwards Deming Institute Blog
    July 21st, 2014 @ 2:00 pm

    […] And often treating symptoms results in the underlying causes going untreated. Often those underlying causes continue to do damage (which can remain hidden for a long time). And once that damage becomes visible, without the right understanding (often related to viewing the organization as a system or understanding variation but can be related to theory of knowledge or understanding psychology – the human side of an organization) that damage is often treated with a bigger band-aid and the cause is still left unaddressed. […]

  4. Four Days with Dr. Deming « The W. Edwards Deming Institute Blog
    August 18th, 2014 @ 3:19 pm

    […] After the working group presentations, Deming began his lecture on the subject of theory. “If you don’t have a theory, you don’t have an experience,” he announced. “Without theory there is no observation; there is no experience.” … He […]

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