Knowing vs. Knowing How To Learn

On the way to the airport a few days ago a couple of thoughts occurred to me that I wanted to toss out there and see how you all responded. This is one of them.

What separates an expert from a master? Actually I need to ask in more prejudicial terms. Some people who are truly experts are also “stuck” in that they try to fit new things they encounter in to an analogy within their (vast) experience. When they find it, they apply the analogy and often come up with a pretty good solution. But they can have problems relating when the encounter something that doesn’t compare with anything they have seen before.

As an example, the classic elements of standard work are described as

  • a repeating work sequence
  • balanced to a takt time
  • standard in-process stock

And, indeed, these things are the elements of standard work when there is a repeating work sequence and when there is a takt time.

Some experts at applying standard work, however, have a hard time seeing application outside of this scope. They know work needs to be standardized, but they continue to try to shoe horn what they see into this model.

Another, more general, lean manufacturing model is the notion that this is about manufacturing, or that it “doesn’t apply” to true job-shops or non-repetitive environments. But this, too, is just a limitation of an “analogy” model. It is the analogy that breaks down, not the concept.

In the analogy model, we try to educate by providing more analogies, more examples of different applications in order to expand the base for comparison.

And, to be honest, this works to a degree. Some people get it, others simply don’t want to expand their analogy base. They are the ones who say “This (model) does not apply to (whatever is their current paradigm)     .

Indeed, people who are tightly holding the view that kaizen events led by trained specialists are the only way to drive improvement can easily be blind to the possibility that an organization that is successfully running daily kaizen is operating at a fundamentally different level. I have seen that as well. And I have seen the same excuses made to explain away the difference in performance. “It isn’t different;”  “it doesn’t scale;”  “it isn’t repeatable.” All of this is defending a mental model – a paradigm – an analogy.

On the other hand, I want to contend here that a true master is not one who has mastered a process, but rather one who has mastered the process of learning about a process.

At an organizational level, true continuous improvement starts to engage when “process” and “standard” become baselines to gain higher understanding. Rather than trying to audit and enforce compliance, they are genuinely curious about the reason why a process is not being carried out as it should. This thinking requires far more work because it is empowering – it simply does not allow playing victim to “they won’t.” It puts the spotlight right back on what can (or should) be learned from the experience.

Put another way, the “expert” knows.

The “master” knows that there is much to learn.

11 Replies to “Knowing vs. Knowing How To Learn”

  1. In our rush to “solve” the problem of the day, we often forget that it is far more important to know how to ask the relevant questions than it is to know the “correct” answers.

    The problem is, of course, that when you only know one answer for any given problem domain, that you may be short-term right, but will frequently be long-term wrong. The process that is built around this type of thinking becomes inflexible and stagnant; ripe for a Toyota-style disaster.

    The “I know the answer” form of expertise feeds the expert’s ego, but it also frequently builds a corrosive environment within the organization. Mastery in the form that Mark describes requires a humble, seeking mindset that understands the need to involve others in the quest for answers.

  2. Well said. I think a master is better able to abstract and adjust. David Langford has some good thoughts in this area (based on Bloom’s taxonomy) with his capacity matrix.

    Being able to apply ideas in a new and different area requires a more complete understanding than repeating what you have already been shown (either in the same area or a very similar area).

    Being able to teach complex topics often requires more than expertise. You need a solid enough understanding that you can explain it to others and answer questions outside of your experience.

  3. “a true master is not one who has mastered a process, but rather one who has mastered the process of learning about a process.“

    You are so very correct.

    Sometimes in my study of Lean principles I get confused. Confused about how and where a particular lean principle applies. However, the true answers on how to eliminate waste always come from two sources.

    1. Direct observation of what is going on in the process. This can take several weeks or longer.

    2. Holding a Kaizen event where I ask people who work in the process what problems they are having and what they think the solutions are.

    Also. A true master must discover the forces and influences that keep the process as it is. And then alter those forces so that any changes made will be maintained.

  4. Deep article!

    To my opinion a master is someone that does not see any analogy and does not respond from a preset of thoughts (paradigm)

    To a master everything is new and has to be investigated. Classification is no part of his/her vocabulary.

    The result of this investigation is a question.

  5. I think the difference between an expert and a master is not in what a master does but in what a master does not do. An expert will continuously try to control a process/system. The “true” master will give up control of the process/system in order to understand it better. The difference is NOT subtle and it is NOT accidental.

    To use an analogy ( 😉 ) the difference between an expert and a master can be likened to the difference between a horse wrangler and a horse whisperer. The wrangler understands the horse, controls the horse, and generally makes the horse better by making it work in all situations the wrangler can possibly think of. The whisperer understands the horse, builds a benevolent relationship with the horse, and generally makes the horse best. This horse will do whatever needs doing in whatever situation because it understands what good is, in general, not specifically.

    1. Kris –
      A really great analogy.
      That difference between “control” and “deep understanding” is a subtle one.
      I think Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge gets to this as well – I am working on a post on a piece of that.
      Thanks for the insight.

  6. Kris’ comment is interesting – the relationship between mastery and ego. For an expert, understanding is the means and ego is the end. For a master, understanding is the end, and ego is an obstacle to be overcome.

    Another way to look at it is by what questions drive inquiry: an expert is driven by the question of “how-to”, and they are defined my their degree of perfecting a particular technique. This makes them very possessive and defensive of the technique. A master is driven by the question of “why” -they are interested in perfecting a particular technique only insofar as it allows them to thereby transcend it (as there are multiple methods to achieve the same purpose).

    This applies to development of people as well. The expert tells. The master asks. The expert forces the student to bend themselves to fit the form. The master allows the student to transcend the form to find themselves.

    Regarding analogy – I think masters actually employ analogy much more thouroughly and successfully than experts. The difference is in their approach to learning. An expert uses analogy so they do not have to learn – they pay more attention to where the analogy fits so they can preserve the technique. The master pays more attention to where the analogy breaks down and why, so they can find a new analogy and hence a new technique.

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