Agile Knowledge Transfer - Reusable, Reconfigurable, Scalable

Rick Dove, Paradigm Shift International, www.parshift.com,

Fade in ....... I’m doing 65 on the way to the airport in a 55 zone, but mostly just keeping pace with the rest of the traffic. This California morning traffic moves right along, even with the commute density on the increase. All of a sudden the 6:30 winter darkness is full of red lights as we all stand on the brakes. Must be an accident. Maybe I won’t make it. Two minutes at a complete stop and I can see the traffic ahead start to surge. I’m off again, along with everyone around me. No accident materializes, nor does any other explanation for the jam up. Some jerk probably changed lanes without looking and caused a glitch in the flow. That jam will stay there until the commute density dies down. Unless someone doesn’t stop in time, and a real accident happens. Then the backup will get really bad and take maybe four or five hours to clear.
    Funny, the highway has plenty of unused capacity. It’s not like we’re really driving bumper to bumper. There are plenty of unoccupied car lengths between cars, even for California. This road should be able to take even more cars, if we can just figure out how to get them merged into the traffic stream and then keep them at speed. On-ramp metering lights might help.
    Maybe electric highways will solve the problem, when we leave the driving to them. I hear the highway engineers are proposing platooning rather than solid car-to-car-to-car patterns. They must be expecting the unexpected. The platoon concept bunches cars in tight-pattern, high-speed groups, with plenty of space maintained between platoons as a buffer. Apparently simulations that consider uncertainties show optimal throughput well below full utilization. Imagine an unending high-speed stream of bumper-to-bumper cars and one gets a flat. Whoa!
    Is this related to why Toyota Production System II increases work-in-process inventory buffering? Or why factories striving for overly high machine utilization see a decrease in throughput? Or why those still enamored with utilization as a performance measure should be shown what they already know about commute traffic. They ride in it too.......Fade out.
    Well, that was one morning’s drive-time conversation with myself. But about that last comment, it’s never been fruitful to tell people who don’t want to listen things they don’t want to hear. Actually, that seems to be true for most people most of the time.
    Not Invented Here - NIH - is a phrase we all understand from first hand frustration. Casting pearls before swine is a related metaphor, often used to express that frustration and dismiss the unconsidered rejection of valuable information. Expressions of language evolve to communicate the common occurrences of everyday life.
    An old Calvin and Hobbes cartoon put it straight. Talking to his teacher Calvin says: "You can present the material, Mrs. Wormwood, but you can’t make me care."
    Imparting new knowledge to others seems to grow in difficulty in direct proportion to its applicability. Why don't people recognize good information when it stares them in the face? Perhaps it is more fruitful to ask: How can we help people care?
    Dick Morley, inventor of programmable controls, business philosopher, and friend, begins his thought provoking seminars on Chaos Theory and Manufacturing by asking the audience to suspend disbelief while he talks - he knows the listener’s natural reaction is to find a reason to dismiss new concepts as soon as possible.
    But Eric Drexler puts his finger on it directly in his book, Engines of Creation. He suggests that the biological immune system we are all familiar with serves a valuable function when it rejects the cell types that were not present at birth, like bacterial and virus invasions; and that an equally necessary system protects us on the mental plane. "The oldest and simplest mental immune system simply commands ‘believe the old, reject the new.’ Something like this system generally kept tribes from abandoning old tested ways in favor of wild new notions." He goes on to give some solid grounding for the NIH syndrome, and finally notes: "This simple reject-the-new system once worked
well, yet in this era of organ transplantation it can kill. Similarly, in an era when science and technology regularly present facts that are both new and trustworthy, a rigid mental immune system becomes a dangerous handicap."
    So it’s not just pig headedness after all. But maybe there’s a way to trick this immune system, to insert a new idea disguised as an old, familiar idea. Like suggesting that product flow through a factory has a lot in common with traffic flow at commute time. The power of the parable and the metaphor is mighty.
    I remember one postmortem discussion at an auto plant when both union and management representatives decried the fact that their lean production training sessions were not working. People did some things differently after sitting through class but stubbornly refused to change others. They finally asked somebody why this was: "You guys don’t know what you’re talking about. If we do what you want you’ll see production go down."
    Spoken from the heart; but it wasn’t accurate. The class preached a new way to people who had unreceptive mental patterns, patterns that could not connect with the new information, patterns that were unable to recognize value in the new suggestions.
    We all do it all the time. We understand the problem we have been working on, the problem we have found a solution for, so well, that we assume it is obvious to everyone. So we blurt out the solution and provide all its wonderful detail to people who haven’t traveled the same road, and aren’t prepared to value the same insight. Deaf ears at best, but they probably think we’re a little crazy.
    To transfer knowledge effectively, we must first create a context of understanding. We must build the patterns of understanding and value before we can hope to have new information embraced.
    One masterful example: Jack Stack’s Great Game of Business set out to teach every employee at a discarded International Harvester plant how to read and relate to the monthly corporate financial statements. What an uphill battle that must be - if you try it straight on: "When your shift is finished we’d like you all to join us for a two hour session on Balance Sheet reading". What Stack did, instead, was to teach people how to build a personal financial statement, and how to build a financial statement for a family side business like baking muffins and making jams. He captured interest with a personal connection and latched on to existing value patterns before distributing company financial statements. And it works - you have only to read Open Book Management to see how well this technique has spread throughout all types of companies.
    So we use parables and metaphors to connect new information to old trusted knowledge patterns. These are reusable, reconfigurable, scalable knowledge patterns.
    An effective technique for building new knowledge patterns is to involve people in the actual discovery process. A structured approach for what I call discovery workshops is important, so that the group stays focused and achieves the assessment objective - both individually as well as collectively. And there is definite leverage in building new knowledge patterns when a discovery workshop takes place at a non-competitive site. Unlike benchmarking, where we want to see how a competitor does it, discovery workshops benefit when the shields are down, when the participants don't already think they know the subject cold and have strong filters already in place. One very effective way to sneak up on NIH.
    We'll use eight discovery workshops in 1997 to develop business engineering principles for adaptable practices. We'll assess two to four different areas at each of the eight sites; combining objective outsiders with a small team of insiders in a three-day structured process that will provide benefit for all. You can follow the findings here. Or you can even lead a bit by suggesting site candidates or participating in a few of the assessments. Get involved, build some new patterns of your own. Call or email your suggestions.


1996-1998 RKDove - Attributed Copies Permitted
Essay #026 - Originally Published 12/96 in Automotive Production, Gardner Publications - Revised 9/97

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Last modified: April 25, 2005