Epistemology – on knowledge and knowing

ConfuciusMy experiences and understanding (i.e. my mental model) of the world is (incredibly) limited. That wasn’t a confession – so is yours 🙂

Further, I might tell you about my experiences but my description can only be a partial representation and, however good I am at explaining, you cannot share my experience.

You can only construct your own mental representation of what my experiences might be like…and apply this to your (current) mental model of the world.


So what?

If we don’t realise and (regularly) reflect on the fact that we are all working on limited and incompletely-communicated models then we can get stuck in debates about who is right and who is wrong. And of course, we will always be right won’t we!

Instead, we need to (truly) grasp two things:

  • My (and your) mental model of the world is tremendously limited; and
  • If we don’t habitually see this limitation, then we will likely spend our time reinforcing (rather than exploring and expanding) this mental model.

Why does this matter?

So, you might be gloriously happy with your mental model of the world and not give a damn about what others think!

This would be a reasonable position to hold if your mental model also considers that the world is currently, and will remain, perfect (from your point of view).

However, if (as is likely) you think that there are plenty of problems with the world and plenty of room for improvement, then you are (to put it mildly) unlikely to move towards desirable outcomes if you don’t reflect on your (and others) limitations and what this implies.

Some related words of wisdom:

“The more views we have of a thing, the better we can understand it.”

 “Complete understanding of anything, let alone everything, is an ideal that can be approached continuously but can never be attained.”

 “In systems thinking, increases in understanding are believed to be obtained by expanding the systems to be understood, not by reducing them to their elements.”

 Russell Ackoff

It should be of interest to us if someone’s mental model appears to differ from our own.


1. This short post came about from reflecting on a piece written on the subject of epistemology (on knowledge and knowing) within the course ‘Mastering Systems Thinking in Practice’, at The Open University.

What you see depends upon your perspective.

uh___perspective__by_paper_flowersIf you go on a site visit to see another organisation, let’s say because you want to see if you can ‘borrow’ someone else’s brilliant ideas, be very mindful of the effect of your own constrained thinking on what you will see!

“…Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.” (Marcus Aurelius)


The Operations Manager: If you go to see a manufacturing plant, see that it is really clean and tidy, notice that they use a technique (and related tools) called ‘5S’…you could come back to your own plant and tell everyone to ‘do 5S’.

…but you would have missed the point as to how that manufacturing plant arrived at their current reality. They will likely have engaged everybody in the factory as part of a deeper ‘Lean/ Systems Thinking’ management system. They will have an environment in which ‘5S’ is relevant to them and can thrive.

It is likely that your top-down mandate to ‘do 5S’ won’t be embraced and you, the ‘command-and-controller’ will say “it didn’t work here”…and will go looking somewhere else for another ‘brilliant idea’ to impose.

The Healthcare Executive: If you go to see a hospital looking for ‘best practise’, see that some of the best surgeons use ‘checklists’…you could purchase a pack of ‘expert designed’ checklists from a consultant and mandate their use by all your surgeons.

….but you would have missed the point that the checklists (or any other effective yet dynamic ‘standardised work’) were designed and owned by the people who were using them because they believed that they were a meaningful counter-measure to meaningful problems.

It is likely that your surgeons won’t accept your imposed checklists…and you will attempt to implement controls to enforce their use, leading to extra costs and much worker- management resentment.

Note that the American car manufacturers AND Toyoda (now Toyota) went to see Henry Ford’s revolutionary ‘River Rouge’ production plant at about the same time as each other (the 1920s)…but they were looking at the same thing through very different eyes and came out with very different observations (e.g. economies of scale vs. flow)…and the rest is history!

The best way to make meaningful and sustainable improvements is to always start from the perspective of the customer, see the customer’s value stream as a system, understand its purpose and provide an environment in which all the process performers and managers are intrinsically motivated to continually improve this system towards its purpose. And, to be clear, this (in part) requires the removal of any and all management instruments that do the opposite.

Whilst it might be useful to see what others are doing, perhaps to spark ideas, this shouldn’t be your starting point and neither should it be the end point. You should know what you are trying to achieve before you look, and you should (meaningfully) experiment before you implement.

Two quotes that apply here:

On tools: “A fool with a tool is still a fool” (Grady Booch); and

On environment: “People’s behaviour is a product of their system. It is only by changing [the system] that we can expect a change in behaviour.” (John Seddon)