Should You Know Why Before You Know How?

The first article in Jill Jusko’s twice yearly “Top 10” Industry Week articles about Lean is her own Lessons in Lean Training, in which she quotes consultant Jon Armstrong as saying “individuals first need to know why before they know how. It’s important to start with the principles.” It sounds rational but it isn’t quite as obvious as it sounds. It’s an effective way to teach geometry but not English spelling. In geometry, you arrive at conclusions through logic; in spelling, you memorize arbitrary rules. You don’t learn to spell because of principles but because you won’t get the job you want with a misspelled resume.

For a learner to ask why, multiple times, is valued as the sign of an independent mind. Such a learner won’t be satisfied with the status quo and will improve it. It’s a behavior we encourage in children…up to a point. It can also be paralyzing. At some point, a learner has to agree to act and defer the acquisition of the know-why after that of the know-how, and this is not limited to skills like driving nails. Computer code, to many programmers, is a magic formula. They have no clue why a particular line produces a chart on their screen; they only know that it does and that it fails if the punctuation is not perfect.

In the Japanese teaching tradition, drilling precedes and leads to understanding. For a Karate kata, the learning sequence is as follows:

  1. The sequence of moves.
  2. The details of each move in the sequence.
  3. The application of speed and power to the sequence.
  4. The self-defense principles behind the sequence.

The first three steps are learned through repetition, with instructor feedback; the fourth, through analysis (“Bunkai,” or 分解) and application (“Ōyō,” or 応用). A kata is a simulated fight against multiple opponents. In Bunkai, fellow students enact the attacks the kata is designed to defend against. In Ōyō, the students work through variations on the moves in the kata that would apply in real situations. That’s martial arts, but my understanding is that, in Japanese middle schools, geometry is taught in a similar way.

To teach TPS/Lean, is it wise or feasible to start from principles? First, you would need to have a workable set of principles. Several sets have been proposed, by Womack & Jones, Jeffrey Liker, Toyota itself, and others, none of which passes muster as a sufficient basis to logically build the entire system. Second, even if such a set existed, you would have to establish that it is the right place to start.

In my experience, up front explanations of principles are not persuasive to manufacturing professionals. Some sort of rationale can be ginned up for just about any approach and, if they have been around, they have heard a few. Results being the only way to move the needle with them, we need them to suspend disbelief long enough for pilot projects to succeed, and these projects must be executed by teams with no prior knowledge of principles or even tools. This is how successful transformations start, and how training starts.

This is how successful transformations start, and how training starts. As more projects are conducted, principles emerge from common patterns. These principles then coalesce into an operating philosophy and a culture.

#TPS, #Lean, #LeanPrinciples, #Karate, #Kata, #TPSPrinciples, #LeanImplementation


5 comments on “Should You Know Why Before You Know How?

  1. Interesting point of view. But I do think principles can be very valuable and useful. I use them a lot to guide a team’s effort to come up with effective countermeasures. For me, both objectives and principles (and their why) form the starting point of their work. How else to evaluate whether countermeasures are effective and align with certain values, conditions or guidelines? I think that in this sense, principles can be compared to constraints defining your design space. Furthermore, in my experience, agreeing on them upfront also helps a team a lot in guiding their discussions an getting to conclusions as they form an impartial mediator.

  2. I agree that principles are useful, as explained, for example, in the Introduction to Lean video from the sidebar. The question was whether the principles are the starting point for training an organization. The principles of Lean I adhere to, as shown in this video, are actionable but they are still at a high level of abstraction and can only be understood through the way they play out in actual situations.

    After a few projects that involve analyzing the way operators work, participants realize that attention to these details is a strategy. After chasing the movements of materials through a few processes, they realize that we are focussing on flow,… They are ready to abstract these concepts from their own experience and apply them in new situations.

  3. Well, my friend, it was a good analysis about why-how in learning. I always read carefully what you write. I believe that in a certain point of a learning path, values (or principles) – whys for the systems work – should be exposed to people. Leaders would have already exposed them through their way of managing and the decisions made.
    Concerning Lean Transformation, I believe there is a set of values sufficient to make it happen and they are different from those of Jim Womack. Let us start from here: learning is for the ones that want to learn. For others, does not make much difference if you start talking about principles or tools. Most of these “learners” wants push-button solutions (why’s doesn´t matter, but they are interested in how’s). So let´s work with this population that wants to learn and you can push them further than ‘suspended disbelief’.
    They will be looking forward to understanding what values should be in place to make lean sustainable. If you show this lean system VALUES to them, they will ask a lot of whys but wil try to understand your point: DEMANDING-SIMPLICITY-ACCOUNTABILITY-RESPECT-CONSCIOUSNESS-PRACTICE-LEAN KNOWLEDEGE.

    I can imagine now some minds yelling:”what this guy thinks he is to propose such a thing”. Well,it would take a long time to talk about and I have not exposed my why’s. Anyway, this is the kickoff set I propose. I know to explain the causality of those values to sustainable lean systems. Each of these words has its own meaning and relate to each other as a way to reinforce each other. The most sensitive one is CONSCIOUSNESS VALUE, that is about the awareness about failures, errors and mistakes.

    Without CONSCIOUSNESS in place, people won´t be able to detect and correct errors, and therefore, learn. It is my thesis: a set of values necessary and sufficient to build lean systems upon. Of course it is not a math question. Of course ther is not the right answer. Do you want to talk about it? No, I don´t think so. Anyway, the most important is what could emerge from a discussion about values and the values to be practiced : a new consciousness about values would show up and,perhaps, would be chosen by those leaders .
    And if there is a critycal mass of leaders enough to make things change for long enough, they will know how to adjust the route towards lean system. Truth is that will be hard to find a group of top executives ‘anxious’ to discuss and practice lean principles/values. If Womack´s principles are not being effective, let us try something different. Isn´t this try-something thought that drove Toyota from its beginning? I will see “Introduction to Lean” video, Michel. Thanks,

  4. Principles are helpful guideposts for a lean journey, but not very useful (in my view) when starting one, especially when people don’t understand those principles or don’t agree or don’t care about them. What worked for me is helping people solving a pressing problem with lean techniques, and then explaining the principles behind the application. The learning from this “a-ha” moment is strong and lasting.

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