Apr 29 2014

Daniel Boorstin wrote “The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, but the illusion of knowledge” (Often misattributed to Stephen Hawking). This illusion of knowledge often comes from a little knowledge internally extrapolated to a belief of sufficient or even complete knowledge.

When we standardise processes & document that standard we are often taking what was once tacit knowledge, codifying it & making it explicit. This scares some people of course, they lose the power held by having knowledge that others don’t. But it is in the best interests of everyone, assuming the organisation is committed to development & growth, and not merely cost cutting. If it is a process, that can be observed, it will usually be complete knowledge, sufficient to provide more than just the illusion of knowledge.

However, attempting to codify knowledge that is in essence a way of thinking itself, a way of seeing things, is much more difficult. It is not something that you do, but something that you consider, you reflect on & you see things in a different way than others. How easy is it to codify that? Can we write down the “thinking way” of an organisation? Arguably, it is not dissimilar to the culture. Often easy to describe in general terms, but not necessarily something that one can transfer via written documents. This is where the illusion of knowledge often comes from, we read a few words (or even a few books) on a subject & believe we are then experts.

I would also liken this to language. When we refer to a dictionary to understand the meaning of a word, there is almost always a sentence which uses the word to show the context. This is because while we can describe the word, it is only in it’s proper context where we can get the true meaning of it. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean we can then use that word correctly in our writing or speaking. It takes practice, repeated use and in most cases, a coach (parent or teacher) to get us to be able to use words properly, consistently.

If we want a specific culture in our organisation, it is not enough to just write down a description of that culture and expect those in the organisation to read it & be able to create that culture. Likewise, if we want people to think a certain way, we cannot simply write down a description of those thoughts. Changing the internal workings of the brain, or of an organisation (in reference to culture) is not something that can be simply written down in instructions, followed by anyone else with the expectation of successful transformation. If it were that easy, there wouldn’t be very many corrosive cultures left out there. Even if we provide context, it is impossible for an example or even a plethora of examples to sufficiently cover all possible variants & situations.

While there are aspects of culture & of a “thinking way” that can be codified, it can be dangerous to “prescribe” these aspects when the evidence shows the remaining tacit knowledge will not be sought, will not be developed, will not be learned. Lean is not about tools, these are explicit & easy to copy. Lean is a way of thinking, arguably a culture – if it could be written down in a “prescription” to be followed, then it would have been done. Many elements can be explained, some can be provided in “prescription” format, but true Lean leaders understand that there is much more to it than can be simply codified into instructions on how to behave, what to look for & what questions to ask. A little knowledge can be more dangerous than none at all, it creates the illusion of knowledge.

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