Provision #741: Knowledge Matters

Laser Provision

Two weeks ago I wrote about the importance of kaizen to leadership. Kaizen is the Japanese word for “good change,” and it has come to be used in reference to continuous improvement and Total Quality Management or TQM. Unlike some quality systems that focus on inspections, quotas, and merit ratings to achieve quality, the system developed by W. Edwards Deming argues for constancy of purpose, pride of workmanship, and a no-fault learning environment where everyone, at all levels, is constantly and forever striving to improve operations. Which of the two sound better to you? Once you have the knowledge, there’s no going back.

LifeTrek Provision


When it comes to leadership, knowledge matters in at least two senses of the word. On the one hand, leaders cannot be effective unless we know what is going on in our organizations, with our people and customers, and in the world at large. That requires not only systems of data collection but also open and honest communication, all the way up and down the line. When information is being hid from leaders, an all too common situation, leaders cannot lead.

On the other hand, leaders cannot be effective unless we know what is important and how best to lead our organizations. We need, in other words, what W. Edwards Deming referred to as a theory of knowledge that focuses our attention and guides our decisions. In the absence of an adequate theory, our efforts as leaders may not only be ineffective, they may also be counterproductive. Common sense is not enough when it comes to leadership.

That’s because common sense becomes common through the accretion of cultural and developmental dynamics that often work against the goals of leadership. Leaders, for example, want people to give their very best, to work hard, and to be creative when problems arise. How do we make that happen? From the time we were young children, the assumption has been that those things get commanded and reinforced by those in authority. That represents one theory of knowledge. But is that really the best way to lead?

Deming, as well as many others, says, “No.” What may have worked well with 2-year-olds, who are still developing their internal controls, does not work well with adults. Adults require a different theory of knowledge altogether, and yet many leaders show up with the same frameworks we have been using all our lives.

Want people to work harder? Threaten them with negative consequences, up to and including termination. Want people to give their very best? Provide large, financial incentives for quality work. Want people to be creative when problems arise? Tell people to make suggestions if they have any ideas for improvement.

Sound familiar? It’s common sense to lead people in this way. It happens all the time. And the disease is spreading. What once was limited to manufacturing operations and the shop floor has now taken the world by storm. Even the most humanistic of professions, such as education, is being held to performance standards with the carrot and the stick. Reward the high performers and punish the low performers. What could be simpler than that?

Unfortunately, to paraphrase H.L. Mencken, simple is not always better. In fact, it can be quite wrong-headed. Mencken wrote: “For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.” Using extrinsic motivators to enforce compliance in the workplace, whether in education or in any area of human endeavor, is one such example of a solution that sends us down a rabbit hole from which there is no escape other than a new theory of knowledge that takes us in an entirely different direction. Knowledge matters, especially when it comes to leadership.

Deming argues that what leaders need is a theory of profound knowledge. Profound knowledge is often the opposite of common sense. Profound knowledge is uncommon sense, but it is the key to effective leadership and organizational success. In Deming’s system, profound knowledge requires an understanding of four dynamics: systems theory, causes of variation, learning theory, and human psychology. Without understanding these four dynamics, no leader can hope to be effective.

  1. Systems Theory. This goes far deeper than the recognition that organizations are systems made up of interconnected parts. Everyone acknowledges that basic truth, but not everyone understand its implications. Profound knowledge recognizes and accounts for the interdependencies between internal as well as external parts so as to optimize the synergy of the entire system; in other words, so as to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts.

    Implications of systems theory include, for example, the idea that no change is made to any individual part of system without analyzing and considering the impact on the whole system. For Deming, that included a statistical analysis of all the components, processes, and people within the system. The point of this analysis, however, is not to judge, blame, or rank the component parts apart from their contribution to the aim of the entire system. In systems theory, the parts are never evaluated separately from the functioning of the whole.

    Another implication, then, is that long-term, cooperative relationships between parts is the best way to structure the internal workings of a system. Deming believed in loyalty both to employees and to suppliers. Single-source solutions were better, in his view, than competitive and adversarial relationships around pricing, materials, and services. Leadership amounts to optimizing these relationships.

  2. Causes of Variation. Deming notes that there are two causes of variation in any system: common causes that occur regularly and special causes that occur exceptionally. Leaders make a big mistake when we confuse the two. If we fail to notice a variation as exceptional, we may not make the necessary adjustments or learn all that the event has to teach us. If we interpret routine variations as special cases, we may start tampering with the system in ways that will only make things worse.

    To illustrate this principle, Deming was famous for his Red Beads as well as his Funnel experiments. In each case, a natural degree of variation occurs, regardless of what people do or do not do. Things get worse rather than better, in such cases, when people start adjusting the experiments on the basis of past results. Such adjustments are ill-advised. Trying to manage essentially random events degrades future performance and creates other problems as well. Yet leaders do this all the time.

    We blame people for things that are essentially outside of their control, and then we think we are doing our job as decisive leaders. such leaders were featured in the movie, Waiting for Superman, when firing bad teachers was identified as the way to save American education. Blaming the victim is no way to lead, however. By knowing the difference between the two causes of variation, which Deming would again use statistics to help identify, leaders can make smarter decisions as to when to do what with whom.

  3. Learning Theory. Deming held that leaders need a clear “theory of knowledge,” but his real concern was that leaders have a clear understanding of how people learn. People think we learn from experience, like an infant touching a hot stove. But adult learning is much more complicated than that. Adults start with hypotheses as to what will happen if we do something. These hypotheses shape our experiences which, in turn, shape our hypotheses. There is an iterative and integral relationship between hypothesis and perception when it comes to the evolution of human knowledge. If leaders fail to understand this relationship, we fail to lead. 20 years of experience may, in fact, be only one year of experience, twenty times over.

    That’s why Deming, ever the statistician, argues that leaders need to become like scientists. We need to become both intentional and smart when it comes to working with data. Going around collecting examples does not a theory make. Scientists learn by postulating a formal theory, often invented with a little help from the imagination, and then testing that theory through experiments. On the basis of those experiments, theories get tweaked, scrapped, or developed. Learning takes place when people come away from their experiments with new understandings as to how things work now and might work in the future.

    Deming is big on the notion that leaders should minimize leading on the basis of our unfounded gut intuition or sense of things. He also doesn’t like eyeballing the data. Deming was trained as a statistician, and he knew how often inklings and surface-level analysis could lead people astray. Deming wanted leaders to formulate hypotheses, conduct experiments, collect data, and work with it properly so that we don’t engage in superstitious learning, confusing the known and the unknown.

  4. Human Psychology. In some ways, this is what our entire book on Evocative Coaching is about. The book reflects the continuation of what Deming had been writing about for many years as to what things work well when it comes to stimulating adult learning. Leading or coaching people with the carrot and the stick, for example, providing lots of extrinsic pressure and incentives, interferes with human psychology. Giving people respect and autonomy, on the other hand, advances that learning exponentially.

    Deming’s concern is that leaders learn how to kick up and bolster intrinsic motivation: the desire to make things better for the pure joy of making things better. Fostering pride of workmanship is one of Deming’s management principles. Instead of micromanaging people or pitting them against each other through rating systems and scorecards, Deming argues for giving people freedom and encouraging collaboration.

    Such approaches tap into the very core of human psychology. People don’t like to be controlled or reprimanded. They don’t like to be treated like commodities. They don’t like to function under in fear of punishment. They don’t like to be cutting corners on quality in order to lower costs and maximize profits. People like to be treated as valuable and contributing members of a team. The more leaders learn to treat people in this way, the more our leadership will grow into something truly wonderful.

These principles represent the kind of knowledge that leaders need to have and apply if we hope to be effective. Profound knowledge, as Deming calls it, generates leadership success. It is also the secret to moving information up and down the ladder so that we are not operating in either a vacuum or a bubble. In so many ways, knowledge matters when it comes to leadership. With the right knowledge, we really can steer things in positive directions. And isn’t that what leadership is always all about?

Coaching Inquiries: How would you describe your knowledge of systems, variation, learning, and psychology? How do you relate to Deming’s assertions as to the nature and importance of each? How might you become more familiar with this profound knowledge? What would be different about your leadership if that were to happen today?

To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form to arrange a complimentary conversation. To learn more about LifeTrek Coaching programs, Click HereTop

LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Formor Email Bob.


I really enjoyed reading the poems this week by Maura and Dave! “Where We Live” reminded me that you are probably getting some great birds flying through your yard this time of year during fall migration! Enjoy.


I read that poem and thought it was beautiful and was wondering if I could use it in the Church Newsletter that I do once a month? I got a lot of comments on the other poem that you allowed me to use and I thought this one was really lovely too.


Thank you for another week of joyful reading. October 1st was a special day for my family as well, since my husbands sister also got married that day. The experience made me realize more than ever that living from the heart, being centered within, so one can be of service to others is where we live. I cherish my family and friends for sharing their values of community and love of life with each other and thank you for reminding us that all this “warm and fuzzy” stuff like caring and relationships is so important in leadership and life. Have a great day!


I thought you might enjoy this article by Atul Gawande that a friend shared with me (if you haven’t already seen it)….I still enjoy your weekly Provisions immensely and I hope all is well with you and your family. 


May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching Internationalwww.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformationwww.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coachingwww.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

Address: 121 Will Scarlet Lane, Williamsburg, VA 23185-5043
Phone: (757) 345-3452 • Fax: (772) 382-3258
Skype: LifeTrek • Twitter: @LifeTrekBob
Mobile: www.LifeTrekMobile.com
Subscribe/Unsubscribe: Subscriber Services