This month David looks at systems management and using data to evaluate truths.
We recently had dinner with a wonderful friend and colleague, Michelle Guenther. During our conversation, Michelle mentioned a conversation at work when she responded to a question with “What I believe to be true is…” She said she frequently prefaces her answers to questions with that phrase and that she got it from me. I was pleasantly surprised. I, too, frequently use that phrase when confronted with significant or challenging questions. It may always be needed, but I just forget to say it…or maybe I do know the truth, sometimes. For me these are difficult and important definitions. I like to think I’m on a journey toward the truth that I may not finish while I’m still alive.
My journey started as a youngster. I then believed the truth to be whatever Mom, Dad, my extended family, my teachers, and books said. During adolescence, I began to realize that some truths seemed to disagree with other truths. One of the many things that bothered me during that time was that if you needed to believe in Jesus to get to heaven, what happened to those who died too young or never heard of Jesus or chose another path to immortality? I was blessed to be fairly active in a church that included theological students who were very open to conversations about such things. When I asked them questions like who gets to heaven and why, they said those were questions they, too, were struggling with. The truth began to get a little less definitive for me.
My engineering education gave me another perspective. At General Motors Institute, we were taught to solve problems using formulas and constants that were defined to be the truth. That seemed to work pretty well, until, in our senior design course, we were told to provide a 200-500 percent safety factor. We weren’t told exactly which percentage to apply or why. As Six Sigma practitioners, we all know that those safety factors were mostly caused by the existence of variation. Deming’s “Everything is one of a kind” seems to ring true, but seems to be ignored or unknown by many, if not most, people.
My graduate work added yet another perspective. My take away from my course in systems management has always been that everyone needs a rock…something that is absolutely true. My instructor told us that is necessary to maintain our sanity as well as to make life easier, because we don’t have to question every piece of information we come across. That idea made sense to me. He said some people need many things to be true, including where you put your cereal box, because it makes life easier. Other people don’t need so many things to be true in order to maintain their sanity.
My work at Ford provided yet a little more insight to me. While at Ford World Headquarters, my good friend and colleague, Ed Baker, would sometimes remind me that the “facts” I would state were “…based on the existing evidence…” It took me a few years before I more deeply appreciated that little reminder. During that time, Deming also taught us about variation and the need for operational definitions, another reminder that facts, or truths, are a little less clear than we sometimes assume.
The consulting phase of my vocational journey brought me still more perspectives on this idea of the truth. I attended a Systems Thinking conference years ago when Peter Senge keynoted the conference with a presentation called “Crisis of Perception.” He, to my mind, effectively argued that we made it all up. We made up trees, buildings, weeds, flowers…everything, because we categorized things and named them. One simple example of this phenomenon is that what some people call weeds other people call flowers. Among other things, he convinced me that we made up God. That struck a nerve because my “rock” that I discussed earlier was “God is love.” If that was all I had for a rock and I made it up, how was I to stay sane? This so shook me up that I approached Peter immediately after his presentation and shared my personal dilemma. He said that it was OK to believe whatever we thought to be true so long as it worked for us in a complex and thoughtful world. That saved my sanity, but reminded me to be more responsible when considering what I stated and believed to be true.
Another teacher, colleague and wonderful friend, Jamshid Gharajedaghi, gave me yet more insight into this idea of truth. Jamshid said to begin to understand any but the simplest system you must look at it from as many different perspectives as possible. Jamshid went on to say that objectivity is simply subjectivity that is generally agreed on by many people. Remember the Parable of the Elephant and the Blind Men? Another way to think about it is what we learned from Gerry Nadler, another great systems thinker. Gerry shared with us “The map is never the territory,” a phrase coined by Alfred Korzybski.
Going back to my one of my early questions about truth and spirituality, Buddha provides one more insight.
Believe nothing. No matter where you read it or who has said it, not even if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.
Finally, Dr. Noriaki Kano tells us, as practitioners of continual improvement, to ask a series of questions given five different situations. One of those five situations is that we are given a fact (a truth). If we are given a fact, we should ask the person providing the fact:
- How do you know?
- Where’s the data?
- How did you get it?
That’s probably good information to provide without request when we state “the truth.”
Kathy Dannemiller, a well-known organizational development consultant, used to say that everyone’s truth is their truth. I think she was correct, but I also think we need to be thoughtful regarding anything we label as the truth. That’s what I believe to be true.
As always, I treasure and look forward to receiving your comments and questions.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views or position of PQ Systems.