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Blog, Lean

A Lean Theory Of Knowledge?

Posted: August 22, 2018 at 11:16 pm   /   by   /   comments (0)

G U E S T  A R T I C L E

Okay… here goes: I have a doctorate from the Sorbonne in Theory of Knowledge (I kid you not) and all these years, it never occurred to me that we shouldn’t distinguish knowledge from the process of acquiring this knowledge: theory, measurement and trying things.

It’s been a nagging concern for a while. When we wrote The Lean Strategy, we talked about reusable learning, not reusable knowledge. But I still saw learning as one, dynamic process, and knowledge as one overall static stock.

This is clearly plain wrong – facts have a half-life, and this is well known and studied. In medicine, for instance, half of what we know as a fact gets overturned every forty-five years. Knowledge is not a stock to which we add to, but a process – and additive one for sure, but still a process.

If we see it as a process, knowledge can be seen as based on change – not dead facts. We better understand now the psychology of “knowing,” which is close to simulating a concrete embodiment of “facts” in our minds – we’re manipulating knowledge by changing things through mental experiments.

To truly understand things, we need to change them. With small, distinct change in an otherwise reasonably controlled environment, we can finally understand the causality of A causes B and build or correct our mental models. The process of changing things one by one is the process of knowing.

The first lean graph I remember was Masaaki Imai explaining kaizen.

I understood at the time that kaizen activities fight the decay of the investment by solving small problems and fixing it.

Investment -> decay -> fix problems -> leverage the investment

What I now understand is that the process of constant kaizen, small controlled, verifiable changes produces greater understanding, which then leverages the use of the innovation.

Investment -> change things one by one -> understand the investment -> leverage the investment

Which is a completely different logic path. This change of focus puts the person, the actor who activates the change, at the center of understanding knowledge: it’s people-centric, not people-free. Who makes the change (what they intend, what they previously know, how smart they are, with whom they work), makes a difference.

It’s easy to understand that giving team the freedom to experiment and change things in their work environment gives them a greater sense of ownership, and from there, responsibility, engagement and hopefully higher quality and productivity. Yet, this framework is straight out of the old intrinsic-versus- extrinsic motivation theories of the sixties. It plainly ignores the fact that when people understand better what they do, they’re better at it. Period.

Seeing knowledge as a process can lead us to change our mind radically about knowledge management. Rather try to manage a huge dead stock of knowledge, with systems and curators and so on, à la Wikipedia, maybe we should focus on knowing who is changing things right now: who are the knowledge producers?

Keeping track of who has experimented with what, and who is trying what now, is far simpler than trying to manager the a complete database of all information. Who can answer this question matters a lot more than making sure we have the great library on corruscant where all questions can be answered that are never asked.

Furthermore, as we can increasingly see with Mr. Google and Mr. Wikipedia, reading a quick answer to a vaguely formulated queries lead the naïve reader to completely misinterpret the “facts” they’re shown. You have to have tangled with the knowledge production process itself to grasp the validity of the facts you’re shown.

As a teenager, I was struck by Robert Heinlein’s idea of “grok” and “grokking”, which meant completely knowing something from the inside by consuming it. It was a Martian word close to “drink”, but also to “fear” and “love” and “hate,” conveying the sense of total empathy with the object of grok. Such understanding could not be achieved without the subject merging with the object of enquiry.

Maybe Heinlein was onto something after all – maybe we can’t truly understand something until we’ve tried to change it – and this is exactly what kaizen frees us to do.



About the author:

Michael Ballé

Editorial Board Member chez

Dr. Michael Ballé, is the co-author of THE LEAN STRATEGY and THE GOLD MINE trilogy. He coaches CEOs on the gemba, is Managing Director of ESG Consultants and co-founder of the Projet Lean Entreprise ( See Dr. Michael’s full profile at LinkedIn.

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