Home > The Lean Post> You Can't Know If You Don't Know

You Can't Know If You Don't Know

by John Y. Shook
August 24, 2016

You Can't Know If You Don't Know

by John Y. Shook
August 24, 2016 | Comments (17)

Helen Kales, MD is a professor of psychiatry with the University of Michigan Health System. Recently she wrote a terrific blog describing her experiences with an important set of words: “I don’t know.”

Fear of appearing incompetent in front of a group has probably deterred most of us from saying “I don’t know” at least once in our lives. Dr. Kales describes a simulated flow exercise she experienced during a lean healthcare training session at the University of Michigan. Her group struggled to achieve the required flow, yet when the facilitators asked them what they thought was wrong, the group automatically started spewing out possible answers. It was only after the group admitted, “We don’t know” that they took a step back, examined all the possibilities, and finally came to an unexpected “ah-ha!” moment.

The simulation caused Dr. Karas to recall several real-world experiences, including a personal situation that called for an unintuitive but crucial “I don’t know.” Amid fears that her son Theo had been born prematurely, causing apneas and clubfoot, doctors ran a battery of negative tests, as though determined to prove there was something wrong with him. It all culminated with a doctor telling Dr. Kales that Theo “probably” had a debilitating neurological disorder that would impact him throughout his life. The reality? You guessed it: the family’s regular pediatrician admitted she didn’t know what (or if) anything was “wrong” with Theo. And lo and behold, Theo’s breathing problems lasted all of another month before resolving. He now lives a happy, healthy life.

Dr. Kales’ article raises an interesting question: When was the last time that you felt completely comfortable saying, “I don’t know?” Even if you’re okay saying that, have you ever felt a small twinge of guilt over having to ask for help? If that made you pause and scratch your head, you’re not alone. Why does it seem like there’s a stigma attached to admitting we don’t understand something? Are we afraid of coming off as incompetent or burdensome?

Fear of saying, “I don’t know” is indicative of a serious organizational illness.

The day that employees are reluctant to ask for help is the day that their organization ceases to be lean. It’s important to identify it early and address it at its source.

For me, too, one of my first lean lessons was about the power of “I don’t know.” Way, way before I joined Toyota, I was a summer intern at a massive Yoder Bros. greenhouse outside Ft. Myers, Florida, working for a German immigrant named Fred Kupke. Fred had escaped East Germany, risking his life through miles of climbing, crawling, running in search of personal freedom. Fred was a no-nonsense kind of guy. He didn’t take BS well.

One day, Fred asked me why a certain problem had occurred in the greenhouse: an entire row of houseplants hadn’t been watered properly. I don’t remember why today. And I didn’t know why then, either. But, that’s not what I told Fred when he asked me why the problem occurred. I gave him some BS answer. Fred saw through me right away. He looked at me with an unblinking, hard stare.

What?” he asked again. I stammered the same screwball (that’s baseball’s “googly” for you cricket fans) answer. He didn’t bother to tell me what the real problem was, to tell me how he knew I was out to lunch because what I’d said just didn’t make sense, to explain to me how the sprinkler system really worked and that’s how he knew my reply didn’t make sense. He didn’t even bother to ask me to explain how I arrived at my nonsensical conclusion.  

He said, “John, when you don’t know … say you don’t know.” That was my first lean lesson.

As powerful as any I learned a few years later at Toyota, where I saw “I don’t know” actualized as day-to-day practice. Culture even. If you can’t say “I don’t know,” you won’t seek to understand true current conditions, you won’t go to the gemba to look for causes, you won’t call out problems, you won’t solve problems because you won’t even find them. It’s the first step to discovering the need to go to the gemba, performing root cause analysis, avoiding jumping to conclusions, and finding and solving problems. An essential sequence, fundamental to lean thinking. 

Back to Dr. Kales’ story. Her learning during the UMich lean healthcare course was a catalyst, but it only reinforced the importance of a lesson she knew all too well. Healthcare – and one of the reasons healthcare desperately needs lean thinking – has a serious “I don’t know” crisis. The work of clinicians carries with it tremendous responsibility. So perhaps it’s natural that, more so than you and me, clinicians sometimes have a hard time with this “I don’t know” thing.

But here’s the thing: discovery can never happen without “I don’t know.” It is the oxygen, the O2 of learning – without it, learning suffocates. It dies. If “I don’t know” is oxygen, a know-it-all attitude is carbon dioxide – no “I don’t know,” no learning. And no learning – no lean.

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
Search Posts:
Lean Management System
Joe Murli & Mark Hamel
Kaizen Express
By Toshiko Narusawa and John Shook
Was this post... Click all that apply
HELPFUL INTERESTING INSPIRING ACCURATE
29 people say YES
44 people say YES
34 people say YES
25 people say YES
Related Posts
17 Comments | Post a Comment
Karyn Ross August 24, 2016
1 Person AGREES with this comment

Great post. I believe that creativity, as well as learning, begins in those spaces that we allow ourselves to admit that we 'don't know'.

Reply »

John Shook August 25, 2016

Couldn't agree more, Karyn. Thanks. - john

Reply »

Rick Eitel August 24, 2016
1 Person AGREES with this comment

At the US Naval Academy, they have five basis responses.  The answer for "I don't know" is "I'll find out".  I think as lean practioners, this obligates us to observe and experiment for the answers.  It is good to acknowledge what you don't know so you know what you need to learn to make progress. 

Reply »

John Shook August 25, 2016
1 Person AGREES with this reply

Thanks, Rick, for the thoughts and insights in Naval Academy teaching. It's interesting ... we think of science as providing answers - which it does, though the answers tend to almost always be tentative since they are based only on current best knowledge -- but science is born from admiting there's something that we don't know. That's what inspired Galileo to look to the stars, explorers to sail the seas, Pasteur to run experiments. As you and the Naval Academy remind us, 'I don't know' is what sends us out to observe, experiment, and explore. - john

Reply »

Peter Tassi August 25, 2016

John - I haven't been reading your notes in a long time - but so happen to catch this one. Nice job. I've been at DTE's Fermi Nuclear power plan for almost three years. It would great to get together if you ever come to Michigan. Take care.  

Reply »

Katie Anderson August 25, 2016

John - great post. Your comments also make me think of the four "questioning mind" questions that I learned from you and David Verble:

-What do you actually know? 

        -How can do you know it?

-What do you need to know?

         -How can you learn it?

Starting with an acknowledgement of "I don't know" opens up a great possiblity of deeper learning.

 

Reply »

John Shook September 04, 2016

Thanks, Katie. Yep - we can't even start with that set of questions without first acknowledging I Don't Know. By the way, Mr. Yoshino also hit me pretty hard with this lesson, too. - john 

Reply »

Helen August 26, 2016
1 Person AGREES with this comment

Great article.  I agree that healthcare has a hard time with "I don't know".  Clinicians fear that their patients will loose trust in them.  However I think it builds a far healthier relationship with your patient to say "I don't know, so let's try and figure it out together".  Empower your patients to be part of the solution.  

Reply »

Andrew Bishop August 26, 2016
1 Person AGREES with this comment

John,

Important thoughts, as always.  Vulnerability, at the heart of "I don't know", is not the standard in health care.

Mostly, though, thanks for honoring Fred with this recollection!  I'm forwarding a link to family, colleagues, and select members of the "Yoder Alumni Club". 

We never know the profound effects we may have with a few words, for good or ill.

Regards,  Andrew

Reply »

Jane Trolinger August 26, 2016
1 Person AGREES with this comment

Really worthwhile post - we must break our pride in order to improve ourselves and our work - being able to admit "I don't know" is a strength. 

I, too, learned from Fred Koepke at Yoder Brothers.  He  taught me two points I have never forgotten and they have served me well:

-I don't know

-Never assume anything

Thank you John for this post, thank you Andrew for sharing this post with me and thank you Fred for taking the time to teach me valuable points for life. 

Reply »

John Shook September 04, 2016

Thanks for sharing, Jane. I was probably about 20 yrs old when Fred tried to teach me this lesson. And, yes, "Never Assume Anything" was part of the learning! Glad to know Fred's teachings impacted others, too. I guess there's nothing like putting your life on the line for personal freedom, as Fred did, to bring home the meaning of Never Assume Anything - john

Reply »

Jane Trolinger September 19, 2016

Hi John - thanks for letting me know that "Never Assume Anything" was also a part of your learning and for your additional commentary.  

Reply »

Andrew Parris August 29, 2016
1 Person AGREES with this comment

Thank you, John. This is a profound insight.

In the same way that "No Problem" is a problem, "Know Everything" is also a problem.

For those who are lifelong learners, the more you know, the more you realize how little you know. This realization should stir up within us all a humilty about what we know and the certainty with which we know it.

I believe it is this humility that differentiates those who are puffed up with knowledge from those who do really grow in knowledge because they humbly and earnestly continue to learn and discover - which are at the heart of Lean and even of life.

This is why we consider humility an essential quality of Lean Leaders, as it should be in all leaders (but, sadly, is not).

Reply »

Renee Smith Nyberg August 29, 2016
1 Person AGREES with this comment

This is a really important post John; thank you for it. I am reminded of a concept from grad school (Pepperdine's MS of Org Development.) The concept is MSU - Making Stuff Up. (At least that is the polite and professional way to say it!)

Your post is saying, in essence, "Stop Making Stuff Up!" about your processes and organizational gaps you are trying to close.

This concept applies to human interactions too: I take in your words and actions through my filters. I make inferences about them, based on experience, values, assumptions, etc. I attach meaning to your words and actions, and then I form opinions. In other words, I Make Stuff Up. And then I take actions based on what I've made up. Of course bad things can easily happen because I act on bad data, and likely you do the same about me as making stuff up escalates.

The antidote to MSU is to suspend my assumptions and, in the frame of your post, admit that I don't know...I don't know what you meant. I don't know if we think about the topic the same way. I don't know if the term you used means the same to me as to you. I don't know. I don't have enough data about what you meant. And the only way to know is to ask. I need to get data from you to better "grasp the situation."

Humble Lean thinking can save us from Making Stuff Up about root causes when we don't have data about our processes. It can help us to admit "I don't know. I need to go see." That same humble Lean thinking can also save us from Making Stuff Up about our human interactions. It can help us to admit, "I don't know for sure what that person meant. I need to go ask." Humility can go a long way and have many layers of positive impact in a Lean workplace.

 

 

Reply »

John Shook September 04, 2016
1 Person AGREES with this reply

Thanks, Renee. Yes, "No More MSU" is a way of getting at the same thing. Add to that the "Never Assume Anything" that Jane shares above and we can easily see why Be Humble and Grasp the Situation are key principles and practices of Lean Thinking. 

Reply »

Doug Fuller September 03, 2016
2 People AGREE with this comment

Thank you for this. I've never quite been able to verbalize (written nor spoken) when confronted with either someone not saying IDK when they clearly don't or, more importantly, people who forbid you to say IDK.

Amazingly the second person actually exists. I typically find them in customer-facing roles but I've had managers get upset when I've said IDK to their manager. The fear is my reponse makes them look bad to their boss. So many things harken back to Deming's point #8 -- drive out fear.

Reply »

John Shook September 04, 2016

Yes, Doug, I'm afraid it's far from rare that negative behavior is reinforced intentionally and unintentionally by traditional management thinking and acting. Definitely harkens back to Deming's "drive out fear." 

Reply »

Search Posts:
Lean Management System
Joe Murli & Mark Hamel
Kaizen Express
By Toshiko Narusawa and John Shook
Innovation in the Work
A Sweeter Type of Lean
A Week of Kaizen in Just One Day
Advice from the Gemba: How Can I Change a Culture?