By louis
Published: September 21, 2007

One of the four things Dr. Deming said were necessary for management was the theory of knowledge. He held that knowledge comes from theory; without theory there is no knowledge, only information.

This process begins at an extremely early age. Almost from birth people begin making observations and formulating theory. This may be on a subconscious level at that age, but still allows a person to gain knowledge.

For instance an infant is hungry. Because of the discomfort they begin to cry. Crying results in being fed. Soon the theory develops, crying results in getting what they want. It works very well until one day they cry and someone tells us to shut up instead of giving them what we want. This teaches another fact about theory.

No theory can ever be proved, because while a million examples do not make it so, a single example to the contrary proves it false. The child now learns, not every time they cry will they get what they want. This calls for revision of the theory. It is revised and tested again. For instance, maybe every time I cry, Daddy will give me what I want? At any rate, theories are continually revised in light of new data and knowledge is gained.

There are likely no perfect theories in this universe, however that does not limit their usefulness for a given time or application. The above example theory was likely quite useful for one or so years, but then it had to be revised or discarded.

Problems seem to arise when people become too found of their theories [paradigms.] Even in the face of evidence they may refuse to see when the theory no longer applies. Faced with a multitude of evidence to the contrary, people can go to any length to preserve their way of thinking.

A non-open mind accepts a paradigm as correct and rejects or justifies anything that disagrees. This brings up a third point and explains a good deal of poor management. It may be nearly impossible to change [help?] a person that does not wish to be changed. There may be nothing as infinite as the ability of the human mind to deceive itself.

Knowing when to revise or abandon theory is important to good management. Even knowing this, again requires a theory. For lack of a better name, it could be called "The theory of knowledge." This is the study of how we know the things we know. More to the point, how do we know the "things we know" are correct?

A key is in the tool PDSA [plan, do study, act.] Using this handy tool to test theory can help a person gain truer knowledge, quicker. For instance there may have always been cars to repair. Suppose all of a sudden, there are fewer and fewer cars to repair. Blame can be affixed forever as to why, but unless the problem is solved, does it really matter what is to blame?

To help myself I may form a theory. For instance, if I could show clients that I could meet their needs better than the competition, they may be more likely to do business with me.

Next, I could test the theory, demonstrate to clients I can indeed provide better results and why. Study the results: is business better, if yes, can I expand the concept. If no, a revised theory is needed.

In the paragraph at the beginning of this article, my new theory may become if I ask politely, someone will give me what I want. I tried it and it worked, so I accepted it as my new theory. This worked for several years. One day I asked politely and someone said, "Get a job!"  Even the best theories are always subject to revision.

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