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.

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Principles About Principles

Abstracting underlying principles from practices is essential when you are trying to learn from the way an organization works, for the purpose of helping other organizations, engaged in different activities in different contexts. Unless you can do it, you are reduced to just copying practices without understanding what problems they were intended to address.

Unfortunately, articulating a set of principles is hard because they must be (1) understood, (2) actionable, and (3) memorable. Here are a few meta-principles on how to achieve these goals:

  1. Banish words like “thoroughly,” “rigorous,” “towering,” “powerful”, or “fully.” If the meaning is in the eye of the beholder, it doesn’t belong in a statement of principle.
  2. Express principles as an action verb followed by a single object. “Develop,” “create,” “cancel,” or “hire” are all appropriate action verbs in a statement of principle. If you have multiple objects, you need a statement of principle for each.
  3. Keep the number of principles down to a maximum of five. Otherwise, they won’t be remembered. Most Jews can’t recite the 613 commandments in the Torah; most Christians, their 1o commandments; most Americans, their bill of rights. If you want principles to be remembered, make a shorter list.

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