Prediction Doesn’t Equal Understanding

Lunar Eclipse over Everett, WA. Photo by Mark Rosenthal, © 2015Sometimes people fall into a trap of believing they understand a process if they can successfully predict it’s outcome. We see this in meetings. A problem or performance gap will be discussed, and an action item will be assigned to implement a solution.
Tonight those of us in the western USA saw the moon rise in partial eclipse.

We knew this would happen because our understanding of orbital mechanics allows us to predict these events… right?

Well, sort of. Except we have been predicting astronomical events like this for thousands of years, long before Newton, or even Copernicus.

The photo below is of a sophisticated computer that predicted lunar eclipses, solar eclipses, and other astronomical events in 1600BC (and earlier). Click through the photo for an explanation of how Stonehenge works:

Photo of Stonehenge
Creative Commons flickr user garethwiscombe

Stonehenge represented a powerful descriptive theory. That is, a sufficient level of understanding to describe the phenomena the builders were observing. But they didn’t know why those phenomena occurred.

Let’s go to our understanding of processes.

The ability to predict the level of quality fallout does not indicate understanding of why it occurs. All it tells you is that you have made enough observations that you can conclude the process is stable, and will likely keep operating that way unless something materially changes. That is all statistical process control tells you.

Likewise, the ability to predict how long something takes does not indicate understanding of why. Obviously I could continue on this theme.

A lot of management processes, though, are quite content with the ability to predict. We create workforce plans based on past experience, without ever challenging the baseline. We create financial models and develop “required” levels of inventory based on past experience. And all of these models are useful for their intended purpose: Creating estimates of the future based on the past.

But they are inadequate for improvement or problem solving.

Let’s say your car has traditionally gotten 26 miles-per-gallon of fuel. That’s not bad. (For my non-US readers, that’s about 9 liters / 100 km.) You can use that information to predict how far a tank of fuel will get you, even if you have no idea how the car works.

If your tank holds 15 gallons of fuel, you’ll be looking to fill after driving about 300 miles.

But what if you need to get 30 miles-per-gallon?

Or what if all of a sudden you are only getting 20 miles-per-gallon?

If you are measuring, you will know the gap you need to close. In one case you will need to improve the operation of the vehicle in some way. In the other case, you will need to determine what has changed and restore the operation to the prior conditions.

In both of those cases, if you don’t know how the car operated to deliver 26 miles-per-gallon, it is going to be pretty tough. (It is a lot harder to figure out how something is supposed to work if it is broken before you start troubleshooting it.)

Here’s an even more frustrating scenario: On the last tank of fuel, you measured 30 miles per gallon, but have no idea why things improved! This kind of thing actually happens all of the time. We have a record month or quarter, it is clearly beyond random fluctuation, but we don’t know what happened.

The Message for Management:

If you are managing to KPIs only, and can’t explain the process mechanics behind the measurements you are getting, you are operating in the same neolithic process used by the builders of Stonehenge. No matter how thoroughly they understood what would happen, they did not understand why.

If your shipments are late, if your design process takes too long, if your quality or customer service is marginal, if the product doesn’t meet customer’s expectations, and you can’t explain the mechanisms that are causing these things (or the mechanisms of a process that operates reliably and acceptably) then you aren’t managing, you are simply directing people to make the eclipse happen on a different day.

“Seek first to understand.”

Dig in, go see for yourself. Let yourself be surprised by just how hard it is to get stuff done.



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