Tag Archives: theory of knowledge

Acting Without Theory Often Results in Wasted Effort

When you act without theory you can find yourself beating your head against the wall, in ways similar to this woodpecker bangs its head against this sign.

This bird may have copied the pecking behavior without understanding the theory. Pecking steel won’t lead to it uncovering insects to eat. Alternatively, it may be pecking to make noise and attract a mate or tell other woodpeckers this territory is claimed. If mates and others acknowledge the metal pecking noises then the behavior may be rewarded (the noise is louder than pecking wood so it may even be an innovation with improved results), if not, the beating its bill against the sign is wasted effort.

If you don’t understand why you take action you will find yourself wasting effort. You must have a theory that you can test in order to test what is working, what changes actually lead to improvement and to learn. If this bird wants to find food it will discover this method isn’t effective.

I wrote about a similar example before: Experience Teaches Nothing Without Theory.

Related: We are Being Ruined by the Best Efforts of People Who are Doing the Wrong ThingEffort Without the Right Knowledge and Strategy is Often WastedThe Illusion of Knowledge

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Wonderful advice and so poignant. But actually, if you read the whole poem, what we take from the quote isn’t what the poem was saying. Earlier in the poem it says

Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same

view out windows of a temple

photo from a temple in Siem Reap, Cambodia by John Hunter

Robert Frost was poking fun at his friend who would obsess over what fork to take in the path as they walked when in reality the choice made no difference.

And “that has made all the difference” is poking fun at self justifications of our actions; congratulating ourselves for doing something not really worthy of accolades.

Still the top three lines do seem like insightful advice. Of course what is really needed is insight into when choosing the road less traveled is wise (or at least a sensible gamble) and when it is less traveled for very good reasons.

I do believe we far too easily slip into habits encouraged by the well worn path most people take. And therefore think balancing that tendency with at least considering the road less traveled more often is wise. But I actually like that when you read the full poem it really isn’t saying that.

Related: Chomphet Hike, Luang Prabang, LaosOlympic National Park PhotosThe Aim Should be the Best Life – Not Work v. Life BalanceMaking Better DecisionsRhinoceros Hornbills on Mount Santubong

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Cognition: How Your Mind Can Amaze and Betray You

The webcast above is from the excellent folks at Crash Course. This webcast provides another view into the area of Deming’s management system on the theory of knowledge (the one most people forget), how we know what we know and how that belief isn’t always right.

Two of the four components of Dr. Deming’s management system were about our brains (psychology is the other) which makes a great deal of sense when you think about how focused he was on the human element in our organizations (and the others are viewed significantly by how they interact with our brains – how we view variation, how we often fail to look at the whole system when drawing conclusions, etc.).

I believe most people don’t give nearly enough attention to theory of knowledge especially and also psychology within the context of an organization. They are a bit messy and vague and dependent and not easy to create simple cut and paste instructions for how to manage. This webcast takes a different look at it without connections back to management but I think most people need to spend more time thinking about these ideas. This video can help you do that.

If you are constantly (multiple times a minute in this video) seeing the connections with Deming and how the points relates to management that is a good sign. If not, that probably means you should spend more time reading and thinking about the theory of knowledge and psychology (see managing people posts).

Related: Customers Are Often IrrationalRevealed preference versus stated preferenceHow We Know What We KnowThe Neuroscience of DemingIllusions: Optical and Other

Stated Versus Revealed Preference

My father provided me a good example of the flawed thinking of relying on stated preference when I was growing up. Stated preference is, as you might deduce, the preferences voiced by customers when you ask. This is certainly useful but people’s stated preference often do not match there actions. And for a business, actions that lead to customers are more important than claims potential customers make about what will make them customers.

His example was that if you ask people if clean bathrooms in a restroom is required for a restaurant they will say yes. Potential customers will say this is non-negotiable, it is required. But if you eat at many “ethnic restaurants,” as we always did growing up, you would see many popular restaurants did not have clean restrooms. If the food at atmosphere was good enough clean restrooms were negotiable, even if customers stated they were not.

Now I think clean restrooms is a wise move for restaurants to make; it matters to people. Instead of creating a barrier to repeat customers that has to be overcome with much better food and atmosphere it is wiser to give yourself every advantage by giving the customers what they want. But I think the example is a simple example of stated versus revealed preferences.

McDonald’s gets a great deal of success by doing certain things well, including clean bathrooms, even if they miss on things some people think are important for a restaurant. McDonald’s really gets a fair amount of business for people driving a long distance that really want a clean bathroom and a quick stretch of their legs and quick food. This is a small percentage of McDonald’s customer visits but still a very large number of visits each day I am sure. Understanding, and catering to, the problem your customers are trying to solve is important.

The point to remember is what your potential customers say they will do is different than what they do. It is sensible to listen to stated preferences of customers just understand them for what they are.

We need to pay more attention to revealed preferences. Doing so can require putting in a bit more thinking than just asking customers to fill out a questionnaire. But it is worth the effort. A simple restaurant based example would be to have wait staff pay attention to what people leave on their plate. If you notice certain side dishes are not eaten more often, look into that and see what can be done (improving how it is prepared, substituting something else…).

Related: Voice of the CustomerThe Customer is the Purpose of Our WorkCustomers Are Often IrrationalPackaging Affects Our Perception of TasteBe Careful What You Measure

Experience Teaches Nothing Without Theory

“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

Your Brain Can Jump to Incorrect Conclusions

How our brain works without us realizing it often is hugely beneficial, but it also creates some faulty conclusions at times. The video gives a good synopsis of the quick intuitive leaps our brains make all the time. These are extremely helpful, but occasionally lead us to fall into traps.

I have discussed these idea before: The Illusion of Knowledge, Optical and Other Illusions. By understanding some of the traps our brain can fall into, we can improve our decision making.

By learning that our “system 1 brain” will jump to immediate answers but may make some risky assumptions in seeking the quickest answer we can learn to question that conclusion. I find building the case for that conclusion (and questioning the assumptions) is helpful.

The trickiest part is figuring out when to apply more conscious effort to exploring the options. I do not believe the quip “don’t assume” is useful. We have to make hundred of assumptions every day or we couldn’t make any progress. If I don’t assume the floor will support my weight I have to be very careful getting out of bed, then the stairway, then whether food is safe to eat, whether the brakes still work on my car…

We have to assume. But it is helpful if we can intelligently question our immediate conclusions if it is important to do so. Optical illusion are interesting, most often the mistakes our brain makes are not important to us. But if such a conclusion was important, knowing to question your system 1 response will give you the chance to improve.

Related: We are Being Ruined by the Best Efforts of People Who are Doing the Wrong ThingHow We Know What We KnowFlaws in Understanding Psychology Lead to Flawed Management DecisionsAlbert Einstein, Marylin Monroe Hybrid Image

Double Loop Learning Presentation by Benjamin Mitchell

Benjamin Mitchell – Using the Mutual Learning Model to achieve Double Loop Learning from Agileminds.

Benjamin Mitchell presents ideas using Chris Argyris thinking on double-loop learning. “Double-loop learning occurs when error is detected and corrected in ways that involve the modification of an organization’s underlying norms, policies and objectives.”

Single loop learning is basically to just try again using the same understanding, thinking and tactics. It is understood that the results were not what was desired so we will try again, but the supporting system is not seen as the reason results were not the desired results. Double loop learning is when the result leads to questioning the system and attempting to adjust the system and make changes and experiment to learn to be able to create systems that get better results.

Argyris: people will blame others and the system when their actions seem to differ from their espoused proper actions. (I see this as similar to the idea of revealed preference versus stated preference: revealed actions versus stated actions – John)

Related: People are Often IrrationalDouble Loop Learning in Organizations
by Chris Argyris
Theory of knowledgeRethinking or Moving Beyond Deming Often Just Means Applying More of What Dr. Deming Actually Said

Ackoff: Corporations Are Not Led By Those Seeking to Maximize Shareholder Value

If I had to limit myself to a handful of management experts, Russel Ackoff would definitely be in that group. Thankfully there is no such limit. Ackoff once again provides great insight with great wit in the above clip.

A corporation says that its principle value is maximizing shareholder value. That’s non-sense. If that were the case executives wouldn’t fly around on private jets and have Philippine mahogany lined offices and the rest of it. The principle function to those executives is to provide those executives with the quality of work life that they like. And profit is merely a means which guarantees their ability to do it.

If we are going to talk about values, we got to talk about what the values are in action, not in proclamation.

Related: Ackoff, Idealized Design and Bell LabsDr. Russell Ackoff Webcast on Systems ThinkingA Theory of a System for Educators and ManagersCEOs Plundering Corporate Coffers

We are Being Ruined by the Best Efforts of People Who are Doing the Wrong Thing

Deming’s Second Theorem: “We are being ruined by best efforts.”

What did Dr. Deming mean by this?

Another quote by Dr. Deming might give you a clue? “Best efforts will not substitute for knowledge.”

Irwin, the porcupine at the Animal Rescue League Wildlife Center has to work a little harder for his breakfast in this clip. The wildlife center likes to provide animals in captivity puzzles and challenges to keep them interested in their environment so they stuck his breakfast to the bottom of the mug.

Thankfully the baby porcupine in the video doesn’t ruin anything and instead just gives us an enjoyable video. He does spends a great deal of energy putting forth his best efforts, but without a theory 🙂 Best efforts can often cause damage to the organization when people give their best efforts but are not guided by knowledge of what is useful and what is harmful.

Another Deming Quote: “We are being ruined by the best efforts of people who are doing the wrong thing.” Please share your comments on how organizations are ruined by best efforts.

And I will wrap up the post with another quote from Dr. Deming: “We want best efforts guided by theory.”

Related: quotes by W. Edwards DemingDeming on being Destroyed by Best EffortsRighter Incentivization

The Theory of Knowledge in Deming’s Management System: How Do We Know What We Know?

I contributed an article to the Process Excellence Network’s Deming Files that was published yesterday: How Do We Know What We Know?. I took on the task of explaining the theory of knowledge, as one article in a four part series looking at the four components of Dr. Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge.

The other 3 articles are:

I hope you enjoy all 4 articles. Every two weeks a new article is published by the Deming Files exploring Dr. Deming’s ideas on management. The articles provide a nice dose of views on applying Deming’s ideas today. The network also has series on Drucker ideas and articles on many other management topics (six sigma, lean, etc.).

Related: Deming on Management2009 post: How do we Know What we KnowData Doesn’t Lie, We Can Draw Incorrect Conclusions from DataCorrelation is Not Causation

Learn by Seeking Knowledge – Not Just from Mistakes

Being open to new ideas and new knowledge is what is needed to learn. Experimenting, seeking out new knowledge is even better.

You can be successful and see an even better way to do things and learn from it. This seems the best way to learn to me – not to just learn from mistakes. Of course this means your goal has to be improvement not just avoiding more mistakes than before.

Your actions are based on theories (often unconsciously): and learning involves improving those theories. Learning requires updating faulty ideas (or learning new ideas – in which case ignorance rather than a faulty theory may have lead to the mistake). Encouraging people to learn from mistakes is useful when it is about freeing them to make errors and learn from them. But you should be learning all the time – not just when you make mistakes.

You can be also be wrong and not learn (lots of people seem to do this). This is by far the biggest state I see. It isn’t an absence of people making mistakes (including carrying out processes based on faulty theories) that is slowing learning. People are very reluctant to make errors of commission (and errors of commission due to a change is avoided even more). This reluctance obviously makes learning (and improvement) more difficult. And the reluctance is often enhanced by fear created by the management system.

It is best to be open and seek out new knowledge and learn that way as much as possible. Now, you should also not be scared to be wrong. Taking the right risks is important to improving – encouraging creativity and innovation and risk taking is wise.

Experiment and be open to learn from what could be better and improve (PDSA is a great way to try things and evaluate how they work). And the idea is not to be so conservative that every turn of the PDSA cycle has no failures. In order to get significant successes it is likely you will try things that don’t always work.

The desire to improve understanding (and the desire to improve results provides focus to the learning) is what is valuable in learning – not being wrong. Creating a culture where being wrong needs to be avoided harms learning because people avoid risk and seek to distance themselves from failure instead of experimenting and digging into the details when something goes wrong. Instead of learning from mistakes people try to stay as far away from them and hide them from others. That is not helpful. But what is needed is more desire to continually learn – learning from mistakes is wise but hardly the only way to learn.

Related: The Illusion of Knowledgeconfirmation biasManagement is Prediction

No True Lean Thinking or Agile Software Development

“There is no true value of any characteristic, state, or condition that is defined in terms of measurement or observation.” – Dr. W. Edwards Deming.

The value depends on your operational definition.

Once you operationalize management ideas in a real organization it necessarily should have differences from how it is operationalized elsewhere. As Deming said there are no effective simple recipes for management. It is one of the frustrations people have with Dr. Deming: that there is no cookbook telling you what you should go do as a manager. You need to understand things like: interactions, variation, psychology, systems thinking, how we know what we know (and what we “know” that isn’t so). And then you need to make decisions about how to apply these concepts in your organization.

There is value in being able to think and discuss ideas in a broader context than your organization. You lose a great deal of learning opportunities if you can’t. And having common idea about what common principles a lean thinking organization or agile software organization should have is helpful I believe. That is aided by abstract ideals of these management practices.

Dilbert comic on the futility of process and arbitrary deadlines

One of agile’s guiding principles is individuals and interactions over processes and tools. I am a Deming follower and that emphasizes the importance of process and system. The words in agile are anti-process. But in my experience it is really a specific type of process – and that is basically idiotic adherence to process that the software developers are sick of. This attitude is best summed up in Dilbert. There are plenty of what I would call process in the practice of agile – sprints, kanban, work in process limits, define what done means, using user stories, retrospectives, build in quality… Basically I think it is important to understand what the principles mean, but don’t get locked into dogmatic ideas.

There are principles that seem to me necessary to, for example, consider an effort as lean management. There must be respect for people in lean management. If it isn’t there, then I don’t think it is lean. It might be management using some ideas and tools from lean, but it isn’t lean management. Exactly how respect for people is manifest is up to the organization. The same thing holds for other principles.

Thoughts on No True Agile, No True Lean, No True Latte

Related: Dr. Deming: There is No True ValueHow to Manage What You Can’t MeasureInvolve IT Staff in Business Process ImprovementThe Illusion of Knowledge

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A Theory of a System for Educators and Managers

Excerpts from The Deming Library Volume XXI, Dr. W. Edwards Deming, Dr. Russell Ackoff and David Langford demonstrate that educators can begin a quality transformation by developing an understanding of the properties and powers of systems-oriented thinking. You can order the entire video, as well as the rest of The Deming Library.

Great stuff! If you enjoy this blog (the Curious Cat Management Improvement Blog), you definitely should watch this webcast. This video has some great insight into education, learning and systems thinking. It also provides a good explanation of systems thinking compared to analysis. Dr. Ackoff: “You cannot explain the behavior of a system by analysis.” “The performance of the whole is never the sum of the performance of the parts taken separately: but it’s the product of their interactions. Therefore, the basic managerial idea introduced by systems thinking is that to manage a system effectively you must focus on the interactions of the parts rather than their behavior taken separately.”

Dr. Deming: “You may reduce defects to zero and go out of business.”

Dr. Ackoff: “Most discussion of education assume that the best way to learn a subject is to have it taught to you. That’s nonsense… Teaching is a wonderful way to learn. Therefore if we want people to learn we have to make them teach.” If you want more on this see David Langford’s work which provides great advice on how to improve learning and education.

Related: Dr. Deming Webcast on the 5 Deadly DiseasesAn Introduction to Deming’s Management Ideas by Peter ScholtesHow to Manage What You Can’t MeasureMarissa Mayer Webcast on Google InnovationTraffic Congestion and a Non-Solution

The Illusion of Knowledge

The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance; it is the illusion of knowledge. – Daniel J. Boorstin

Great quote on a topic I discussed in, How We Know What We Know. Dr. Deming included the theory of knowledge as one of the 4 pillars of his management system. When you do not question what you think you know, and conventional thinking, that will keep you from discovery. Now much of conventional wisdom is right, so you often do well accepting whatever most people believe. But to discover you have to seek out new knowledge. And often the process is stopped before you even form the questions, because you think you have knowledge.

How can you understand if your beliefs are in fact knowledge? Test them. Do you have evidence that performance appraisals add value to your organization? Do you have evidence that outsourcing production is beneficial? Do you have evidence that paying CEOs a king’s ransom is helping? What evidence do you have that sales bonuses help the organization? If you don’t have evidence then you have a belief, not knowledge. You can be ignorant and hold a correct belief. Knowledge requires understanding not just correctness. At least that is how I see it, I am not sure what the philosophers say about this.

I also believe you can have evidence that seems to support your belief but still be wrong. You could site examples where sales bonuses seemed to stimulate extra sales that helped your company. But you could be failing to understand the full system and the other factors that 1) helped make the sale and 2) what damage the sales bonuses did that you didn’t consider. Knowledge isn’t easy. But most that are knowledgeable seek to question their beliefs and assumptions.

Related: Bogus Theories, Bad for BusinessThe Illusion of UnderstandingFlaws in Understanding Psychology Lead to Flawed Managementconfirmation biasPragmatism and Management KnowledgeOptical Illusions and Other Illusions

Certainty is risky. But I am also basically certain about many things (and think that is wise). I don’t have any doubt about how gravity it going to act on what I see in my daily life. I don’t doubt if I don’t take in liquids for days I will suffer and die eventually. I don’t doubt in trying to manage an organization you need to account for the psychology of people.
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Deming: There is No True Value

There is no true value of anything: data has meaning based on the operational definition used to calculate the data.

Walter Shewhart’s Statistical Method from the Viewpoint of Quality Control, forward by W. Edwards Deming:

There is no true value of anything. There is instead a figure that is produced by application of a master or ideal method of counting or measurement… no true value of the number of inhabitants within the boundaries of (e.g.) Detroit. A count of the number of inhabitants of Detroit is dependent upon the application of arbitrary rules for carrying out the count. Repetition of an experiment or of a count will exhibit variation.

Dr. Deming’s ideas on the theory of knowledge are the least understood and least seen in other management systems. The importance of understanding what data does, and does not tell you, is at least somewhat acknowledged in other management system but is often not found much in the actual practice of management. The execution often glosses over the importance of actually understanding statistics versus using formulas. Just using formulas is dangerous. It may be inconvenient but learning about the traps we can fall into in using data is important.

How often do you see the operational definition used to calculate the data you see with the data you are provided?

via: Shewhart, Deming and Data by Malcolm Chisholm

Related: How We Know What We KnowPragmatism and Management KnowledgeMeasuring and Managing Performance in OrganizationsDangers of Forgetting the Proxy Nature of Data

Dr. Russell Ackoff Webcast on Systems Thinking

Dr. Ackoff is one of two management thinkers that any manager, that is serious about improving management results in their organization, should study (the other is Dr. Deming). There are plenty of others that are also great resources. From part 2 of his talk: “Why-questions, about objects called systems, cannot be answered by the use of analysis… The product of explanation is understanding… The product of analysis is how things work, never why they work the way they do. Explanations always lie outside the system, never inside it.”

Synthesis (thinking about systems) involves 3 steps: 1) what is this system of which this is a part of; 2) understanding the behavior of the containing whole; 3) identify the role of function of the system in question within the containing system. Every system is defined by its role in the larger system.

Related: posts on Russ Ackoff’s ideasAckoff’s New Book: Management f-LawsWrite Down PredictionsKnowledge Management – Management is Prediction

How We Know What We Know

Dr. W. Edwards Deming’s management philosophy is a system of management composed of four interdependent areas: knowledge about variation, understanding psychology, systems thinking and the theory of knowledge. The theory of knowledge is the least understood, and the least adopted in the various other management improvement theories (lean manufacturing, six sigma, theory of constraints…). A recent op-ed in the New York Times touches on the ideas behind how we learn: Learning How to Think

The actor was introduced as “Dr. Myron L. Fox” (no such real person existed) and was described as an eminent authority on the application of mathematics to human behavior. He then delivered a lecture on “mathematical game theory as applied to physician education” — except that by design it had no point and was completely devoid of substance. However, it was warmly delivered and full of jokes and interesting neologisms.

Afterward, those in attendance were given questionnaires and asked to rate “Dr. Fox.” They were mostly impressed. “Excellent presentation, enjoyed listening,” wrote one. Another protested: “Too intellectual a presentation.”

So if you want to rate know if your consultants or trainers were entertaining maybe a survey is a good idea. Of course, if you want to know if people learned something useful that they can apply and make your business more effective a survey may not work so well.

The marketplace of ideas for now doesn’t clear out bad pundits and bad ideas partly because there’s no accountability. We trumpet our successes and ignore failures – or else attempt to explain that the failure doesn’t count because the situation changed or that we were basically right but the timing was off.

I think this sounds good, but wouldn’t work. In general, the way people build up beliefs, is full of all sorts of systemic problems. Like above, they tend to think someone entertaining is more educational than someone not entertaining. They may be more entertaining, but taking the ideas of those who are entertaining and rejecting the ideas of people who are not is not a great strategy to build up a great system of knowledge. To more effectively adopt good ideas and reject bad ideas, understanding the theory of knowledge (how we know what we know) and then apply that knowledge to how you learn is a better strategy. Learning to recognize confirmation bias and take steps to avoid it is one positive step. Learning to recognize when you accept ideas from those you like without critical judgment and reject ideas from those you find annoying and then learning to evaluate the ideas on the merits is another positive step you can take.
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Multitasking Decreases Productivity

The problems with multitasking are becoming more and more well know, thankfully. Here is another article on the lower productivity multitasking produces – Multitasking Madness Decreases Productivity by Barbara Bartlein:

In a recent study by Eric Horvitz and the University of Illinois, a group of Microsoft workers took, on average, 15 minutes to return to serious mental tasks, like writing reports or computer code, after responding to incoming e-mail or instant messages. They often strayed off to reply to other messages or browse news, sports or entertainment web sites.

These findings are similar to those of David E. Meyer, a cognitive scientist and director of the Brain, Cognition and Action Laboratory at the University of Michigan. “Multitasking is going to slow you down, increasing the chances of mistakes,” said Meyer. “Disruptions and interruptions are a bad deal from the standpoint of our ability to process information.”

“Many people delusionally believe they’re good at this,” he says. “The problem is that we only have one brain and it doesn’t work that way. In reality, nobody can effectively do more than one remotely complicated thing at a time.”

Related: The Siren Song of MultitaskingMulti-Tasking: Why Projects Take so LongFlow (the opposite of multitasking)

The Illusion of Understanding

The “Illusion of Explanatory Depth”: How Much Do We Know About What We Know? (broken link 🙁 was removed) is an interesting post that touches on psychology and theory of knowledge.

Often (more often than I’d like to admit), my son… will ask me a question about how something works, or why something happens the way it does, and I’ll begin to answer, initially confident in my knowledge, only to discover that I’m entirely clueless. I’m then embarrassed by my ignorance of my own ignorance.

I wouldn’t be surprised, however, if it turns out that the illusion of explanatory depth leads many researchers down the wrong path, because they think they understand something that lies outside of their expertise when they don’t.

I really like the title – it is more vivid than theory of knowledge. It is important to understand the systemic weaknesses in how we think in order to improve our thought process. We must question (more often than we believe we need to) especially when looking to improve on how things are done. Many things that we believe we have good reasons for, we will find we don’t if we question those beliefs.

I commented on in this for Science and Engineering blog.

Related: Management is PredictionTom Nolan’s talkInnovate or Avoid RiskManagement: Geeks and DemingTheory in Practice

Deming Institute Conference: Tom Nolan

I attended the annual W. Edwards Deming Institute conference this weekend: it was quite good. Tom Nolan lead off the conference with: Developing and Applying Theory to Get Results.

He discussed the theory of knowledge: how we know what we know. See my attempt to introduce the idea of the theory of knowledge within Deming’s management system. It is probably the least understood of Deming’s four areas of profound knowledge, the others areas are: knowledge of variation, appreciation for a system and psychology.

Theory of knowledge is also something people have difficulty relating to what they do every day. The most obvious connection, I believe, is the understanding that much of what is “known” is not so. People manage with faulty beliefs. With an understanding of the theory of knowledge decision making can be guided to avoid the pitfalls of basing decisions on faulty beliefs. This is, of course, just one aspect of how the theory of knowledge impacts Deming’s management system.

Tom Nolan also discussed some interesting work that Paul Carlie and Clayton Christensen are doing based on descriptive “theory” and normative theory. My simple explanation is that descriptive theory reports on what is seen. This can be interesting, but has problems when people assign causation based on just observation (without experimentation). Normative theory involves testing theories (such as is done with the scientific method). Good article on this by Carlie and Christensen: The Cycles of Theory Building in Management Research.
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