Theory of Knowledge

Without Theory, There is No Learning.

Management is prediction. The theory of knowledge helps us to understand management in any form is prediction. The simplest plan — how may I go home tonight — requires prediction that my automobile will start and run, or that the bus will come, or the train.

Knowledge is built on theory. The theory of knowledge teaches us that a statement, if it conveys knowledge, predicts future outcome, with the risk of being wrong, and that it fits without failure observations of the past.

Rational prediction requires theory and builds knowledge through systematic revision and extension of theory based on comparison of prediction with observation…

Without theory, experience has no meaning. Without theory, one has no questions to ask. Hence, without theory there is no learning…

Theory is a window into the world. Theory leads to prediction. Without prediction, experience and examples teach nothing. To copy an example of success, without understanding it with the aid of theory, may lead to disaster.

- Dr. W.E. Deming. The New Economics, 3rd Ed., (pp. 69-70)

Everywhere he went, Deming saw tables of data, computer printouts, and information of all types, but little knowledge. People didn’t know how to get knowledge, he said. Deming would point to tables of data and say, “Tons of figures—no knowledge.”

- Dr. W.E. Deming, Dr. Joyce Orsini. The Essential Deming: Leadership Principles from the Father of Quality (p. 193).

In a scene from a favourite movie that my family enjoys, National Treasure, a treasure hunter played by Nicholas Cage finds a pair of “secret decoder” glasses originally made by Benjamin Franklin for creating and revealing hidden messages on the back of the U.S. Constitution about the location of a fabled treasure hoard. The glasses feature colored lenses that can be swapped in or out with simple levers to reveal parts of an intricate clue separately, which become unified when the lenses are used together, revealing new knowledge of where to go next on the hunt.

So, what does this have to do with Deming or the Theory of Knowledge? Let me explain my theory which might help net together an understanding of how to think about and apply his main proposition for the transformation of Western-style management, the System of Profound Knowledge, which we’ve been casually exploring over the past few posts (and will be returning to frequently as there are many rich veins to mine…).

I like to think that Dr. Deming left us with an intellectual analog of Franklin’s glasses for discovery of our own vast, “unknown and unknowable” treasures that are hidden by the world pulled over our eyes, the “prison” he wants us to escape. Each of the lenses corresponds to a domain in the System of Profound Knowledge (Appreciation for a System, Knowledge of Variation, Knowledge of Psychology, and now Theory of Knowledge) that can be used in various combinations to help us interpret the phenomena of organizations so we can improve them by gaining new knowledge. In this way, the SoPK (as the pros call it…) is a meta-example of a theory of knowledge itself.

In the above excerpts, we see Deming making the argument for a scientific approach to management as a counterpoint to the prevailing wisdom that “experience is the best teacher”. As he notes, if you don’t have a theory about what will happen, experience teaches nothing except that something did or did not occur. This leads to a common pitfall in management, superstitious learning, which happens when we make assumptions about cause and effect with no verifiable knowledge. As an example, Deming relates in The New Economics the fable of Chanticleer the rooster who believes, until he sleeps in one day, that his crowing was responsible for the rising of the sun every morning. It’s laughable until you think on how many policies and processes are based on this very thinking that, Deming friend and colleague Gipsie Ranney, would characterize as confusing coincidence with cause and effect.

Consider the above excerpts in your own context and experience. How would you describe the prevailing theory of management you have learned or observed that guides decisions and influences how the organization works? How have you or your management team made decisions about which interventions or actions to take when changing policies, processes, or structures? Were they innovative or a duplication of what was done in another organization? What new knowledge or learning was gained? Real or superstitious? Did you or your management confuse coincidence with cause and effect? How would you know?

Extra Credit: PDSA

Deming was significantly influenced by his friend and mentor, Dr. Walter Shewhart, in his development of the “Deming/Shewhart Cycle” for guiding improvements and learning into four repeatable steps: Plan, Do, Study, and Act. Investigate how you might use this loop for a small change in your office or department. You may also want to check out Mike Rother’s Toyota Kata in this regard which provides a framework for using PDSA loops to drive systematic thinking and problem solving. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Ron Moen et. al.’s book, The Improvement Guide, as another valuable source of inspiration for how to apply a Deming scientific approach to management for system improvements.