The Illegitimate Sensei:


In today’s post, I am writing about coaching. My inspiration is Heinz von Foerster, the giant in Cybernetics. Von Foerster was the nephew of another giant in philosophy, Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Heinz von Foerster defined an illegitimate question to be one for which the answer is known. A legitimate question is one for which the answer is not known.

Von Foerster dreamt of a society where there was an educational system that promoted asking legitimate questions. The idea of an “illegitimate question” is a fascinating one. Von Foerster’s point was that our education system teaches kids to learn answers to questions that they expect to be asked in a test. This is rote learning and does not make them think. Along these lines, I thought about senseis in Lean. Sensei is a Japanese word that literally means “person who came before you” or elder. The word has come to mean “teacher” especially in martial arts. In Toyota Production System, the original Lean, much emphasis is placed on developing people. One of Toyota’s slogan was “Good Thinking, Good Products.” Another slogan used by Toyota is “Monozukuri wa hitozukuri” or “making things is about making (developing) people.” Additionally, one of two pillars of the Toyota Way is “Respect for People.” In this light, one can see that a Lean sensei’s primary focus is on developing his/her disciple.

A sensei should take care to not just impart his wisdom by giving answers to problems. The sensei should probe the disciple’s current knowledge and guide him towards learning. All managers are senseis in many regards. They are tasked with developing his or her team members. Generally, the manager’s first instinct is to tell people what to do. When you think on this further, you can see that here the emphasis is on the manager getting his or her job done. This means that the employee is replaceable. You could bring in another employee and expect the job to be done. This is mechanistic thinking at best. The manager is viewing the employee as a machine that can get the job done. The employee will learn the task to be done this way. However, the employee does not get developed to think. The employee becomes an accessory to the manager to get the job done. This does not improve the quality of life for the employee. Telling an employee what to do is a reductionist approach, while training them to think and come up with ways to solve the problems is a holistic approach.

Suzumura Style and Cho-san Style:

Bob Emiliani [1] talks about the Suzumura style and Cho-san style of coaching for kaizen. Suzumura was one of Taiichi Ohno’s disciples and was famous for being short-tempered, strict, and sometimes demeaning. This is one of the stereotypes of Japanese Lean senseis. In fact, Emiliani called it the “Scary style”. On the other hand, is Fujio Cho, Toyota’s ex-President, who was well known for his gentle, caring nature on the floor. Cho was also a close disciple of Ohno. Cho is famous for his lesson of “Go See, Ask Why, and Show Respect.” Ohno talked about scolding supervisors at the gemba. [2] He said:

When I scold the supervisors on the gemba, the workers see that their boss is getting yelled at and they sympathize with their boss. Then it becomes easier for the supervisor to correct the workers. If you call the supervisor away to a dark corner somewhere to scold them, the message does not get through… When the workers see their boss getting scolded and they think it is because they are not doing something right, then the next time the supervisor corrects them, they will listen.

This is an interesting approach by Ohno! In either case, the employees are not being spoon fed the solution. The sensei is trying to challenge the supervisor to see the waste, and make improvements. The sensei gives the demand and the autonomy to the supervisor to get to the challenge. This way, the supervisor learns what needs to be done and becomes creative. Finally, the more problems that are solved, the better the supervisor gets at finding and solving problems. Additionally, they are now at a position to develop his or her subordinates.

Double Loop Learning:

The idea of Chris Argyris’ [3] Double Loop learning also falls nicely into place here. Telling an employee what to do may train the employee to do that task well. This is similar to single loop learning, where doing a task again and again helps with doing that task better the next time. Coaching the employee to find solutions on their own is similar to double loop learning. The employee gets to understand the “why” behind the problem, and modify his/her mental model and thinking to come up with creative ways to solve the problem. This type of learning improves the employee’s ability to solve a new problem in the future. Solving today’s problem gives the employee the experience and wisdom to solve a completely different and new problem in the future. Argyris wrote:

Organizational learning is a process of detecting and correcting error. Error is for our purposes any feature of knowledge or knowing that inhibits learning. When the process enables the organization to carry on its present policies or achieve its objectives, the process may be called single loop learning. Single loop learning can be compared with a thermostat that learns when it is too hot or too cold and then turns the heat on or off. The thermostat is able to perform this task because it can receive information (the temperature of the room) and therefore take corrective action. If the thermostat could question itself about whether it should be set at 68 degrees, it would be capable not only of detecting error but of questioning the underlying policies and goals as well as its own program. That is a second and more comprehensive inquiry; hence it might be called double loop learning.

Final Words:

Heinz von Foerster had a way with words and was a very wise man. I will finish with his lesson on legitimate questions. [4]

Tests are devices to establish a measure of trivialization. A perfect score in a test is indicative of perfect trivialization: the student is completely predictable and thus can be admitted into society. He will cause neither any surprises nor any trouble. I shall call a question to which the answer is known an “illegitimate question.” Wouldn’t it be fascinating to contemplate an educational system that would ask of its students to answer “legitimate questions” that is questions to which the answers are unknown. (H. Br ̈un in a personal communication) Would it not be even more fascinating to conceive of a society that would establish such an educational system?

The necessary condition for such an utopia is that its members perceive one another as autonomous, non-trivial beings. Such a society shall make, I predict, some of the most astounding discoveries. Just for the record, I shall list the following three:

  1. “Education is neither a right nor a privilege: it is a necessity.”
  2. “Education is learning to ask legitimate questions.”

A society who has made these two discoveries will ultimately be able to discover the third and most utopian one:

  1. “A is better off when B is better off.”

Von Foerster called the third idea a moral imperative.

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Book Review – Seeing To Understand:

[1] Better Thinking, Better Results – Bob Emiliani

[2] Workplace Management – Taiichi Ohno

[3] Double Loop Learning in Organizations – Chris Argyris, September 1977 Harvard Business Review Issue

[4] Perception of the Future and the Future of Perception – Heinz von Foerster

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s