articleLeadershipLeanManufacturingOff TopicSix Sigma

The Value of Not Knowing

By Steve Kane Updated on December 30th, 2014

socrates1By Steve Kane

“If I am wiser. . . it is because I know that I do not know.” ~ Socrates

Is it possible that expertise on a particular subject can become an obstacle to learning and growth?

There comes a point when a person is more apt to be asked for knowledge or advice on a particular subject than to ask for it.  In the context of work, this person is the resident expert.  This is the person others go to to find out how something is done.  This person is certainly an asset in some respects.  But, can this person be a liability in others?

Of course, we could go on about the importance of standard work.  I’ll leave that for another article.  Instead I’d like to discuss the risk of being an expert.

The process stagnates with the knowledge of the expert.

The expert has “been there and done that” more times than one can imagine.  This person knows the job and knows that he knows the job.  This is why others go to him for knowledge and advice.  The learner might improve by going to the expert for coaching.  The process, though, doesn’t.  The process stagnates with the knowledge of the expert.

It seems that processes improve when we are humble and look with new eyes.  Standing in the Ohno circle with the mind of the expert leads to aching feet.  It is when we stand in the circle with the mind of a novice that we begin to open ourselves to learning.

Is expertise enough, or should more emphasis be placed on wisdom?

Simply giving information can hinder the learning process and weaken the skills of the learner.  Learning how to learn is more important than the subject matter to be learned.  We certainly want the learner to be able to do the job.  We also want the learner to think of a way to improve the process.

Instilling the belief that the method taught is the best could impede improvement thinking.  If the learner meets expectations by performing a skill as taught, improvement stops.  The expectation must be to find a way to improve upon the way being taught.

Sometimes the best wisdom to share with the learner is “I don’t know.”

We want people thinking for themselves.  In my role as a lean leader, I gave up trying to be the expert on everything.  Instead I embraced my ignorance.  People often came to me for direction or instruction.  It was when I answered questions with “I don’t know. What do you think?” that things really started to improve.

The universe abhors a vacuum.  Creating a void in expertise with “I don’t know” invites greater expertise.  This is when ideas are shared and explored.

Is there a better way?

I don’t know.  What do you think?


  1. Lance B. Coleman

    December 30, 2014 - 4:17 pm

    Great piece. Well crafted with a powerful message. Even we as Lean practitioners can sometimes get caught up in the “roll up our sleeves and get it done” mentality, rather than allowing others to learn through guided struggle. Thanks for this reminder.

  2. Bart Shoaf

    January 1, 2015 - 7:39 am

    Good stuff. I also like, “Yes, you should try that,” even if it’s a weaker idea. Unless the person has voiced an idea that is unsafe or destructive, he should be encouraged to keep the ideas flowing. Saying, “No, that’s not going to work,” from your position of “expertise,” is enough to stifle any further thoughts or experimentation. (A former Hallmark creative guru explains it best in Orbiting the Giant Hairball – a fun and eye-opening book.)

  3. Jan Salomons

    January 2, 2015 - 7:21 am

    Great thoughts, thanks for sharing. I think this relates to an old Dutch saying which translates to “Law of the handicap of a head start”. I think the key is tacit or implicit knowledge which is difficult to transfer. placing experts in a new environment will force them to transform their tacit knowledge which makes it applied again in a new situation, creating new benefits or value. I also think we should focus more in on learning at the workplace and the role of experts. In general, experts seem to protect their position, which does not make them the driver of learning. It also does not (in general) make them the sponsor of lean projects. from my lean expertise, job rotation or cross functional projects can be of help here.

  4. Russ Elson

    January 2, 2015 - 2:08 pm

    This resonates with me to a great deal. The concept can be extended past the individual expert into organizations as a whole. Sometime the entire shop floor echoes the same sentiment. As a lean practitioner we fight the “this is the way it has always been done here” paradigm frequently.

    Sometimes we forget that we can fall victim to this line of thinking too. “this is the way I’ve always designed my processes” is on the same side of that coin.

    It takes chutzpah to stay humble and remember a good idea can often come from someone who doesn’t know process planning “rules” or even manufacturing very well.

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