Bridging the Knowing-Doing Gap

One common theme from the lean tours we led here in Japan this week was that all of the organizations we visited have successfully bridged what is called the knowing-doing gap. Popularized by Stanford University professor Robert Sutton, the knowing-doing gap plagues so many organizations full of intelligent, dedicated people who make insufficient or ineffective practical use of their knowledge, training, black belts and shared understanding of what should be done.

The first hint of this was in a piece of modern Buddhist calligraphy on the walls of one the meeting rooms where we had a Q&A session with the President of one of our host companies. In bold black brushstrokes it said 救いは行動にある which means roughly “salvation is in action”. These words left a deep impression. Those of us who are often guilty of favoring analysis and thought over action and learning through failure must reflect on these words. And by reflection I mean repentance.

This theme also came up during a meeting with Mr. Isao Kato who shared his wisdom with our group this week. Mr. Kato spent decades at Toyota teaching TPS, TWI, standardized work, kaizen and helping develop leaders within Toyota worldwide. Mr. Kato worked closely with both Taiichi Ohno and Shigeo Shingo in the early days when TPS was being built up. He has written a new book with Art Smalley that will be published in October, titled Toyota Kaizen Methods. I recommend you pick up a copy.

Mr. Kato is full of great stories. At one point I must have said “I understand” to him while he wast trying to teach me something because he gently scolded me through the following lesson.

When Mr. Kato was in his 30s and Taiichi Ohno was a senior manager, Mr. Ohno gave him instructions and Mr. Kato replied, “I understand.”
Mr. Ohno shot back, “What do you understand? I’ll decide if you’ve understood once I’ve seen what you’ve done!”

Mr. Ohno did not tolerate the knowing-doing gap in his presence. One was scolded for claiming to understand something without first putting it into action. Stories like this are the source of the Taiichi Ohno-ism “Understanding means doing”.

The next time Mr. Kato was asked by Mr. Ohno if he understood, Mr. Kato answered, “I will do my best.”

It’s one of the ironies of lean that when you think you understand and are doing lean, you aren’t. When you’re pretty sure you don’t understand it yet but are doing your best, you’re getting close. This can make teaching lean to people who “understand” already very difficult sometimes. Learning requires doing and people resist what they perceive as redoing to be a denial of their past successes.

The potential energy of the untapped knowledge in the minds of people within an organization is huge. Turning the potential energy into kinetic energy requires releasing one’s grip on what we hold in our minds, and letting it drop to the floor where it can do some good.


  1. Veer

    September 20, 2010 - 1:54 pm

    One of Toyota manager used to say “if you think too much, you will not do it, just do it right or wrong”

  2. Joseph

    September 22, 2010 - 3:53 am

    The SAS have a saying “He who dares wins”.
    This is great if you are in a sudden death situation.
    If you are an employee of a company there are certian checks and balances that must be taken before your changes destroy the whole Klingon Empire (A people from Star Treck on TV).
    I would hope that PDCA would come before any ireversable actions are taken.
    Have a nice day.

  3. Troy Taylor

    October 13, 2010 - 3:43 pm

    In my last position with an Australian shipbuilder we adopted a learn, do, think, teach methodology which meant that the groups spent some time in a classroom obtaining the knowledge and then immediately bridged the gap by going to the gemba and applying what they had learnt. Those which surfaced as natural leaders among the groups were then scheduled back in to the training to lead the activities therefore bolstering and deepening their knowledge.
    I found this removed much of the fear related to the translation from knowledge to action and as such the lean effort went from strength to strength and continues to develop and flourish.

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