Epistemology at the Gemba:

plato 2

In today’s post, I will be looking at Epistemology at the Gemba. Epistemology is the part of philosophy that deals with the theory of knowledge. It tries to answer the questions – how do we know things and what are the limits of our knowledge? I have been learning about epistemology for a while now and I find it an enthralling subject.

The best place to start this topic is with “Meno’s paradox”. Plato wrote about Meno’s paradox as a conversation between Socrates and Meno in the book aptly called “Meno”.  This is also called the “paradox of inquiry”. The paradox starts with the statement that if you know something, then you do not need to inquire about it. And if you do not know something, then the inquiry is not possible since you do not know what you are looking for. Thus, in either case inquiry is useless. Plato believed that we are all born with complete knowledge and all we need to do is recollect what we know as needed.

Today, philosophers point out that knowledge is possible through two ways;

  • Rationalism –knowledge comes from within and does not need to rely on experience.
  • Empiricism – knowledge comes from experience using our senses.

One of the great empiricist philosophers, David Hume classified all objects of human inquiries into two categories, which aligned with the two above-mentioned sources of knowledge.

  • Relation of Ideas – These are tautological statements that are true by themselves. These can also be called “analytical statements” or “necessary statements”. Examples are “all bachelors are unmarried men” or “dogs are mammals”. We can know this just by looking at the statement and no further inquiry is needed. These ideas and observations do not rely on the world.
  • Matters of Facts – These are statements that needs further confirmation by evidence. These can also be called “synthetic” or “contingent” statements. Examples are “it is sunny today” or “the Eiffel Tower is 15 cm taller in the summer”. These rely on the world and experience in the particular matter.

As Science progressed, epistemology also progressed. There was more value placed on empiricism and one of the most famous of these philosophical movements was Logical Positivism. The central theme of Logical Positivism was verificationism which meant that all claims must be verifiable to make sense cognitively. This approach required an objective look at science and empiricism, and relied on the concept of positivism. Positivism was an approach to explain the world objectively and deterministically. It treated the nature of reality as objective, single and fragmentable. This promoted the idea of reductionism where everything can be taken apart and studied. The world was viewed as a machine where direct cause and effect relationships existed. One of the main criticisms of Logical Positivism was that the claim of verificationism itself was not empirically verifiable. Another main criticism was ignoring the observer as being part of the system. The world cannot be viewed independently of the observer. The world is in fact a social construct relying on multiple interpretations. The knowing and the knower are always interacting, and cannot be separated. This type of approach to creating the reality of the world is called interpretivism.

Stephen Pepper was one of the critics of Logical Positivism. He believed that it is not possible to have pure objective facts. He proposed the idea of worldviews or world hypotheses through which we create the meaning to reality in his 1942 book, World Hypotheses: a study in evidence. Four of his worldviews are:

  • Formism – the worldview where we make sense of things by identifying similarities and differences, and thus putting things in categories.
  • Mechanism – the worldview where we make sense of the world as if it were a machine. We assume that there are direct cause and effect relationships and we can take things apart to make sense of things.
  • Organicism – the worldview where importance is placed on creating an organic perspective of the world, where parts come together to create a coherent whole.
  • Contextualism – the worldview where we place value in the context of the world and its parts. This allows us to see the complexity of the world. Pepper identified the context through the two fundamental categories – quality and texture. Quality refers to the total character of an event and texture refers to the details and relations that make up this total character. Viewing the world in terms of context helps us to adopt the required strategies to meet the unpredictability of the world.

My own thoughts on epistemology favors empiricism but also relies on interpretivism. The four worldviews proposed by Pepper helps us to understand the reality from multiple perspectives. This brings me to some concepts in Toyota Production System. One of the main tenets of Toyota Production System is “Grasp the Situation”. This is preceded by going to the gemba, the actual work place where the action is. Once at the gemba, one has to grasp the reality – what is really going on. This requires one to keep personal biases aside and view gemba through the eyes of the operators. I like the use of the verb “grasp” – this indicates a tactile nature, as if you are actually trying to physically “feel out” the problem. Observation is the first step for empiricism. This can be achieved only by going to gemba.

Most of the time when we are informed of a problem, we do not have a clear understanding. Sometimes, the problem statement can be – “it does not work. Again!” This vague problem statement does not help us much. The problem is experienced by the operator and is external to you. Once we are at the gemba, we can start asking questions and even feel the operations by working at the station where the problem occurred. One of the Toyotaisms is – look with your feet and think with your hands. This tactile nature of learning helps us understand the implicit knowledge of the operator.

Another Toyotaism that is meaningful to this discussion is – There is a difference between Toyota Production System and Toyota’s Production System. Toyota Production System is static. It can be treated as explicit knowledge where every single tenet, every single tool and every single concept is written down. However, what Toyota does on a day-to-day basis is personal to the Toyota plant. This cannot be written down. Toyota’s Production System is dynamic where the solutions are unique to the problems that the specific Toyota plant experiences. Another concept that Toyota emphasizes is gaining consensus. This ensures that multiple perspectives are utilized to create the common reality. The concept of “wa” or harmony is important in the Japanese culture.

Final Words:

How do you know what you know? This is an epistemological question. If you are asked to implement 5S or any other lean tool, you need to know why it needs to be implemented. Do you know which problem it is trying to address? If you are asked to help solve a problem on the floor, how would you know what needs to be done? Empiricism is a great way to gain knowledge. This implies using your senses to gain knowledge. The best way to do this is to go to the actual place where the action is. In addition to this, be open to others’ perspectives. The reality must be built upon multiple perspectives.

I will finish with a Zenful story of mine.

The student was in awe of his master. One day, he told the master, “Master, you are truly wise. Do you have any words of wisdom for me?”

The master replied, “I may be wise today. However, wisdom is a habit. Wisdom comes with knowledge only through experience. Thus, I may no longer be a wise man tomorrow.”

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Meditations at the Gemba:

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