Information at the Gemba:


Uncertainty is all around us. A lean leader’s main purpose is to develop people to tackle uncertainty. There are two ways to tackle uncertainty; one is Genchi Genbutsu (go and see) and the other is the scientific method of PDCA. Claude Shannon, the father of Information Theory, viewed information as the possible reduction in uncertainty in a system. In other words, larger uncertainty presents a larger potential for new information. This can be easily shown as the following equation;

New Information gain = Reduction in Uncertainty

Shannon called the uncertainty as entropy based on the advice from his friend John Von Neumann, a mathematical genius and polymath. The entropy in information theory is not exactly the same as the entropy in Thermodynamics. They are similar in that entropy is a measure of a system’s degree of disorganization. In this regard, information can be viewed as a measure of a system’s degree of organization. Shannon recalled his conversation with Von Neumann as below;

“My greatest concern was what to call it. I thought of calling it ‘information’, but the word was overly used, so I decided to call it ‘uncertainty’. When I discussed it with John von Neumann, he had a better idea. Von Neumann told me, ‘You should call it entropy, for two reasons. In the first place your uncertainty function has been used in statistical mechanics under that name, so it already has a name. In the second place, and more important, nobody knows what entropy really is, so in a debate you will always have the advantage.”

I loved the encouragement from Von Neumann that Shannon would have an advantage in a debate since “nobody knows what entropy really is”.

In this post, I am not going into the mathematics of Information Theory. In fact I am not even going to discuss Information Theory but the philosophical lessons from it. From a philosophical standpoint, Information Theory presents a different perspective on problems and failures at the gemba. When you are planning an experiment, and things go well and the results confirm your hypothesis, you do not learn any new information. However, when the results do not match your hypothesis, there is new information available for you. Thus, failures or similar challenges are opportunities to have new information about your process.

There are seven lessons that I have and they are as follows;

  • Information Gain ≠ Knowledge Gain:

One of the important aspects from the view of the information available at the Gemba is that information does not translate to knowledge. Information is objective in nature and consists of facts. This information gets translated to knowledge when we apply our available mental models to it. This means that there is potentially a severe loss based on the receiver. A good analogy is Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson at the crime scene – they are both looking at the same information available, but Holmes is able to deduce more.

  • Be Open:

When you assume full knowledge about a process, you are unwilling to gain knowledge from any new information available. You should be open to possibilities in order to welcome new information and thus a chance to learn something new. Sometimes by being open to others viewpoints, you can learn new things. They may have a lot more experience and more opportunities for information than you may have.

  • Go to the Gemba:

The majority of times, the source of information is the gemba. When you do not go to the source, the information you get will not be as pure as it was. The information you get has been contaminated with the subjective perspectives of the informer. You should go to the gemba as often as you can. The process is giving out information at all times.

  • Exercise Your Observation Skills:

As I mentioned above in the Holmes and Watson analogy, what you can gain from the information presented depends on your ability to identify information. There is a lot of noise in the information you might get and you have to weed out the noise and look at the core information available. One of my favorite definitions of information is by the famous Cerbernetician Gregory Bateson. He defined information as “the difference that makes the difference.” The ability to make the difference from the information given depends mostly on your skill set. Go to the Gemba more often and sharpen your observation skills. Ask “For what Purpose” and “what is the cause” more often.

  • Go Outside Your Comfort Zone:

One of the lessons in lean that does not get a lot of attention is – “go outside your comfort zone”. This is the essence of Challenge in the Continuous Improvement Pillar of the Toyota Way. When you stay inside your comfort zone, you are not willing to gather new information. You get stuck in your ways and trust your degrading mental model rather than challenging and nourishing your mental model so that you are able to develop yourself. Failure is a good thing when you understand that it represents new information that can help you with understanding uncertainties in your process. You will not want to try new things unless you go outside your comfort zone.

  • Experiment Frequently:

You learn more by exposing yourself to more chances of gaining new information. And you do this by experimenting more often. The scientific process is not a single loop of PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act). It is an iterative process, and you need to experiment frequently and learn from the feedback.

  • Challenge Your Own Perspective:

The Achilles’ heel for a lean leader is his confirmation bias. He may go to the gemba more often, and he may experiment frequently. Unless he challenges his own perspective, his actions may not be fruitful. My favorite question to challenge my perspective is “What is the evidence I need to invalidate my viewpoint right now, and does the information I have hint at it?” Similar questions ensure that the interpretation of the information you are getting is less tainted.

I will finish off with a funny story I heard about Sherlock Holmes and Watson;

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson decide to go on a camping trip. All the way to the campsite, Holmes was giving observation lessons to Dr. Watson and challenging him. After dinner and a bottle of wine, they lay down for the night, and go to sleep.

Some hours later, Holmes awoke and nudged his faithful friend.

“Watson, look up at the sky and tell me what you see.”

Watson replied, “I see millions of stars.”

“What does that tell you?” Holmes asked.

Watson pondered for a minute.

“Astronomically, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets.”
“Astrologically, I observe that Saturn is in Leo.”
“Horologically, I deduce that the time is approximately a quarter past three.”
“Theologically, I can see that God is all powerful and that we are small and insignificant.”
“Meteorologically, I suspect that we will have a beautiful day tomorrow.”
“What does it tell you, Holmes?” Watson asked.

Holmes was silent for a minute, then spoke: “Watson, you idiot. Someone has stolen our tent!”

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was The Pursuit of Quality – A Lesser Known Lesson from Ohno.


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