Posted by: knightbird | February 27, 2015

I Know Nothing

“I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.”

― Plato, The Republic

Too often we have to pretend we know something about what we know nothing. Otherwise, we feel we will be judged harshly for not knowing. Yet I talk to lots of people who acknowledge their lack of knowledge. I think it’s the pretenders who cause lots of our problems. They give us advice we don’t ask for, don’t want and might be detrimental to what we are attempting to do.

Why I like Lean Thinking so much is that we don’t need to be subject matter experts to improve a process. All we need is knowledge about the improvement process, and a willingness to engage those who have spent a good part of their work life in the process we want to improve. An interaction between a Sensei and an improvement group should never assume that anyone has the knowledge required for improvement. Why is that? I believe it’s because of the interplay between knowledge and judgment that I mentioned above. People who assume they know often don’t because they don’t have facts. And when they offer a judgment on a subject under discussion, they stop the discussion. When we assume we know nothing, we open our minds to both data and the thought processes for our team members.

If we are in crisis, we need leaders to step in. For Lean practitioners, we have Kaikaku. I have read a number of stories about how Sensei Chihiro Nakao conducts Kaikaku. He did it with Porsche in the 1990’s and more recently in the Seattle area. Sensei Nakao is a scientist who has done the experiment so many times that he knows what a large part of the outcome will be. And that outcome will be far greater than what can be achieved in a single Kaizen. Sensei Nakao can see the whole. If we are in crisis, we must assume we know nothing, and rely on a leader to take us where they know we can be. Think of a Sensei as a navigator. They don’t know where they are until they collect data. Then they select a destination and gather data for that destination. A Sensei relies on data, but they know how to navigate. When Sensei Nakao enters a workplace, he has learned to see where the students are. Like any teacher, they can solve the problem. But like any teacher, that does no good for the student.

So, in a crisis, Kaikaku works. But you must double back and learn by doing. And you must know how to engage your student when their resistance is at their highest. By doing, the student learns. As the student learns, their behaviors change because they learn how to navigate.

John Shook said it well as he recalled his training at NUMMI:

“What my NUMMI experience taught me that was so powerful was that the way to change culture is not to first change how people think, but instead to start by changing how people behave—and what they do. Those of us trying to change our organization’s culture need to define the things we want to do, the ways we want to behave as well as want each other to behave, to provide training as well as then to do what is necessary to reinforce those behaviors. The culture will change as a result.”

So by knowing nothing, you can lead an organization to profound change. That’s worth something.

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