The Cybernetics of Respect for People:

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In today’s post, I am looking at “Respect for People”, one of the two pillars of the Toyota Way in the light of ideas from Heinz von Foerster, the Socrates of Cybernetics. The readers of my blog know that I am a big fan of Heinz von Foerster. Von Foerster had a way with words. One of von Foerster’s favorite topics was ethics, which he taught and spoke about a lot.

“Whenever we speak about something that has to do with ethics, the other is involved. If I live alone in the jungle or in the desert, the problem of ethics does not exist. It only comes to exist through our being together. Only our togetherness, our being together, gives rise to the question, How do I behave toward the other so that we can really always be one?”

Von Foerster continues:

Ladies and gentlemen, this perception (second order cybernetics – observing oneself as the observer) represents a fundamental change not only in the way we conduct science, but also how we perceive of teaching, of learning, of the therapeutic process, of organizational management, and so on and so forth; and — I would say — of how we perceive relationships in our daily life.

One may see this fundamental epistemological change if one considers oneself first to be an independent observer who watches the world go by; or if one considers oneself to be a participant actor in the drama of mutual interaction, of the give and take in the circularity of human relations.

In the first case, because of my independence, I can tell others how to think and to act: “Thou shalt. . . .,” “Thou shalt not. . . .”: This is the origin of moral codes. In the second case, because of my interdependence, I can only tell to myself how to think and to act: “I shall. . . .,” “I shall not. . . .”

This is the origin of ethics.

Anytime there is another participant in what we are doing, ethics automatically comes into the relationship. We are cocreators or participants of a co-constructed social reality. Von Foerster came up with several imperatives, one of which is – “Act always so as to increase the number of choices.” He called this the ethical imperative. A good excuse to shun responsibility is to state, “I had no choice but to do X” or “I was doing as I was told.” From this standpoint, von Foerster says that we should always act to ensure that everybody has a choice.

Act always so as to increase the number of choices. The proposal especially addresses those who come with the excuse: “I had no choice,” and who then wash their hands in innocence, like Pontius Pilate.

Von Foerster expanded on this idea:

On the political stage we hear more and more the phrase of Pontius Pilate: “I have no choice but X.” In other words, “Don’t make me responsible for X, blame others.” This phrase apparently replaces: “Among the many choices I had, I decided on X.”

Von Foerster was able to connect this idea to constructivism and the importance of the observer. When we are telling an operator what to do when a problem arises, we are taking away the opportunity for the operator to learn to solve problems; we are not giving the operator the ability to expand their problem solving skills. When we are stipulating a purpose for another, we are standing outside, looking in objectively. Heinz von Foerster asks us to consider two questions:

  • Am I apart from the universe?

That is, whenever I look, I am looking as through a peephole upon an unfolding universe.

or

  • Am I a part of the universe?

That is, whenever I act, I am changing myself and the universe as well.

Von Foerster was a relative of the great philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein in his first book, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, said:

It is clear that ethics cannot be articulated.

Following the ideas from Wittgenstein, von Foerster advises us that ethics cannot be articulated. It must reside in in our actions. We have to communicate through our actions. Don’t trust the person who tells you what you want to hear. We should not be person who just tells people what they want to hear or how they should act. Inspired by von Foerster, I say – ‘If you want to show, then learn to act.’

“Respect for people/Humanity” is one of the two pillars of the Toyota Way. Toyota views this as important because they view people as a resource, and they believe that developing people comes first than developing products. People form the complex adaptive system that allows Toyota to continue to grow and adapt to the everchanging environment. Showing respect is about allowing the operator to make a choice and to take responsibility. If you tell them exactly what needs to be done, we are stipulating their purpose for them. What this means is that we are seeing them as a cog in the wheel, not as a cocreator of the social reality we are in. We cannot stipulate their purpose for them since we do not have access to their belief system, schema/mental model etc. Respect for people is a long-term strategy.

Alfred Korzybski, the Polish American semanticist said, “There are two ways to slide easily through life: to believe everything or to doubt everything. Both ways save us from thinking.” We should act so as to give the ability for others to make a choice, to think, to improve their skillset in solving problems on their own.

Covid 19:

As we are going through the messiness and chaos of Covid 19, the question of ethics comes up. We keep hearing “Thou shalt not…” Are we seeing ethics in action? We have been advised recently by the CDC to wear face masks. The mask is not meant to completely protect the person wearing it. The mask is to prevent the potentially infected person from transmitting the virus to others. The wearing of a face mask is ethics in action. We are doing it for others.

Stay safe and Always keep on learning…

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

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