Tag Archives: theory of knowledge

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 applying 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)

Errors in Thinking

photo of Jerome Groopman

The Doctor’s In, But Is He Listening?, text and podcast from NPR:

Jerome Groopman (photo) is a doctor who discovered that he needed a doctor. When his hand was hurt, he went to six prominent surgeons and got four different opinions about what was wrong. Groopman was advised to have unnecessary surgery and got a seemingly made-up diagnosis for a nonexistent condition. Groopman, who holds a chair in medicine at Harvard Medical School, eventually found a doctor who helped…

“Usually doctors are right, but conservatively about 15 percent of all people are misdiagnosed. Some experts think it’s as high as 20 to 25 percent,” Groopman tells Steve Inskeep. “And in half of those cases, there is serious injury or even death to the patient.”

Errors in thinking: We use shortcuts. Most doctors, within the first 18 seconds of seeing a patient, will interrupt him telling his story and also generate an idea in his mind [of] what’s wrong. And too often, we make what’s called an anchoring mistake – we fix on that snap judgment.

An understanding of theory of knowledge is helpful to counteract errors in thinking. How we think is not perfect, and an understanding the weaknesses and faulty conclusions we are susceptible to making is helpful. That can help avoid jumping to conclusions that are faulty and to design systems that counteract such behavior.

Related: Epidemic of DiagnosesWrite it DownThe Illusion of UnderstandingIllusions – Optical and Otherhealth care improvement posts

Read an exceprt [the broken link was removed] from the book: How Doctors Think by Jerome Groopman .