The Wisdom within the Experience

We enjoy the freedom of speech and a free press. The accessibility of self-publishing and distribution of news and opinions due to blogs and internet journals has removed barriers to entry of the would-be journalist and columnists. As a consequence, each week many articles and opinion pieces are written about the issues of the day. The topic may be the same, but each writer has their own slant on the story. The recent spate of articles musing on the dissonance between Toyota’s high performance business culture and the massive recall problem they face has been a “lesson within a lesson”. Author and humorist Mark Twain put it best:

We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it — and stop there — lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove-lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove-lid again, and that is well; but also she will never sit down on a cold one any more.

Mark Twain speaks here mostly of negative experiences and our tendency to extrapolate to a wider danger and become closed to possibility, like the cat who remembers only the dangerous hot stove and not the safe cold one. Whenever we vow to “not go back there again” because of poor service, “keep my mouth shut” because an idea was shot down publicly, or judge a person based on an experience and modify our attitude and behavior, we are in danger of not learning the true causes and gaining from the wisdom within the experience. Hate the sin and not the sinner, attack the process and not the person.

Similarly we should all be careful not to see within a failure or success the confirmation of our own biases, support for our pet theories or an opportunity to stand upon our soapboxes and repeat a favored theme. In fact such “confirmation bias” as a behavior that contributes to mistakes is increasingly recognized by people who study human behavior. Everyday experience and the accumulation of habits create blind spots and we learn to see the world in a particular way. The sum total of these blind spots and habits become our nature, if we are not careful.

The wisdom within the experience at Toyota has yet to be fully understood and shared. As this is a big, complex problem it will likely take some time to fully grasp. The experience of reading these articles about Toyota has been variously of enlightenment, education, amusement, shame, disappointment and disgust at the quality and nature of the discussion surrounding the issue. There have been flat-out Toyota Way apologists to whom the company can do no wrong. There are Toyota haters and those happy to declare the end of lean and the failure of kaizen. Then there has been the odd stretch article such as China is the next Toyota. There is of course the broad middle ground of journalism and reporting which attempts a measure of balance and fairness. What has has this taught me? Or if I am to be honest, what is my bias?

I believe that the people who turn away from the vast store of accumulated knowledge and best practices that is the Toyota Way because of this recall issue will be the worse for it. People who find only reasons outside of the Toyota Way for Toyota’s recent failings will be no better prepared when their lean culture begins to fail. Using an experience to confirm one’s bias, either for or against something, is not an example of humanity’s learning potential, at best perhaps that of Mark Twain’s cat.

There have also been many examples of careful reflection and good examples of the extraction of the wisdom within the experience. Matthew May does this skillfully in his article The Intangible Art of Trust, lean management luminaries Jeffrey Liker and John Shook exchange ideas in a deep discussion, and Jamie Flinchbaugh withholds judgment while sharing some valuable observations from within the experience. These are just three examples.

Philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” By extension it may be true that those who cannot objectively examine an experience are condemned to merely confirming their own biases. As a result the wisdom within the experience is wasted, the opportunity for learning is lost and we forget those parts of the past we would profit to remember.

The hot stove teaches us a lesson in “hot” but sometimes we misconstrue it as a lesson in “stove”.

4 Comments

  1. Simon Ellberger

    March 1, 2010 - 1:16 pm

    Well written and very insightful. Wisdom and the confirmation bias both come from experience, but never the twain shall meet.

  2. Kathleen

    March 3, 2010 - 4:53 pm

    Nothing to add Jon. Just wanted to let you know I’m still reading and appreciate your well pondered and written thoughts.

  3. John Santomer

    March 6, 2010 - 7:50 am

    Dear Jon, I think its human nature to challenge a proven/working practice – be it in business or some other aspect. But what is worth noting here are the lessons learned and the impeccable character of Mr. Toyoda in owning up to the responsibility. It only solidifies the customer’s resounding trust and confidence to the Toyota brand that has always placed their customers first. The true test of anything will be its resilience to stand up to challenges and to take up those challenges making itself better than before – yes, there will be some rough times but this only makes the practice more lean and robust to take on its next challenge.

  4. Jamie Flinchbaugh

    March 14, 2010 - 12:08 pm

    Jon, a wonderful point. I love the hot stove analogy. One of my favorite quotes that I try to live by is “experience is not what you’ve been through, but what you take from it.”
    In the mind, I believe this is mostly a problem of not parsing the problem, meaning that we just look at EVERYTHING associated with a problem as the cause, guilty by association. This is instead of understanding true cause and effect.
    The problems of this pattern are just as bad in avoiding something as following something. Because they are good companies, people will copy anything from Apple that they can, as an example, all the way down to Steve Jobs black mock turtleneck and jeans.
    Great points, and thanks for the mention of my post as well.
    Jamie