The Conundrum of Autonomy in Systems:

In my previous post, I talked about the idea of the Copernican revolution in philosophy by Immanuel Kant. In today’s post, I am expanding upon the ideas originated by Kant, especially autonomy and how it poses challenges in how we view human systems. I am also heavily relying on the ideas of Ralph Stacey. Kant had a lot to say about human autonomy. Autonomy stands for the ability to set laws for oneself or the ability to perform actions that are not directed by someone else. Kant viewed humanity as an end in itself and not a means to an end. Humans should not be used simply as a means to get something done. Humans, Kant noted, have the power to act according to their own conception of laws.

Kant was one of the pioneers of systems thinking. He understood the idea of circular causality and self-organization. Kant proposed that all living beings can be viewed as self-organizing systems rather than mechanisms such as a clock. The idea of a self-organizing system meant that the idea of feedback is important. However, Kant made an important distinction when it came to human beings. He proposed that humans cannot be understood as merely being a part of the “system” of nature. For this he used some ideas from Aristotle. Kant noted that all other living beings follow a formative causality, where the structure determines the unfolding of the living being itself. For example, a tree follows the unfolding of their lifecycle from a seed. The same formative causality is applicable to the human body; however, this is not applicable to the human being as a whole who has autonomy. This is beautifully explained by Ralph Stacey:

Humans are part of nature but if nature is governed by fixed mechanistic and systemic laws, then they cannot have any freedom to make their own choices… the body is subject to the fixed laws of nature but the mind is governed by the laws of reason, rationalist causality, and it is reason that makes us free. Kant was here formulating the theory of autonomous, rational individual who chooses goals and actions required to achieve them on the basis of reason. Kant then stressed that autonomous individuals could not be understood as parts of a whole because then they would be subject to the whole and so lose their autonomy. The notion of a system could, therefore, not be applied to reasoning individuals and it would not be valid to regard society as a system whose parts were individuals.

The idea of structure determining the outcome is a prevalent theme in many schools of Organizational Management. However, the idea of humans as being rule-following parts of the “system” should be challenged. In the light of the understanding that we are autonomous individuals with many self-imposed purposes and needs, the mechanistic view of an organization system based on structure falls apart. The “human body” may be viewed as a system, however a human being cannot be viewed as a system or being a part of a system.

The notion of Systems Thinking as being a study of real systems that can be observed objectively is still prevalent. This view suggests ideas such as learning organization or complex adaptive systems. Stacey again provides wisdom in this aspect:

For me, the claim that organizations learn amounts to both reification and anthropomorphism. I argue that organizations are not things because no one can point to where an organization is –all one can point to is the artefacts used by members of organizations in their work together. In our experience, the organization qua organization arises as the patterning of our interactions with each other… Since an organization is neither inanimate thing nor living body, in anything other than rather fanciful metaphorical terms, it follows that an organization can neither think nor learn.

The conundrum of autonomy also brings the important point that objective reality is not possible. The idea that a manager can objectively view the organization by being outside the organization must be reevaluated. This notion implies that the manager can use scientific thinking and identify rules to implement to optimize the organization. But this again utilize the idea that humans can be viewed as mere parts of a system. Stacey cautions us against this:

Management science equates the manager with the scientist and the organization with the mechanistic phenomenon that the scientist is concerned with. The manager’s main concern is with getting the right “if-then” causal rules. There is a quite explicit assumption that there is some set of rules that are optimal, that is, that produce the most efficient global outcome of the actions of the parts, or members, of the organization. There is an important difference between the scientist concerned with nature and the analogous manager concerned with an organization. The scientist discovers the laws of nature while the manager, in the theory of management science, chooses rules driving the behavior of organization’s members. In this way, there is rationalist causality, but it applies only to the manager who exercises the freedom of autonomous choice in the act of choosing the goals and designing the rules that the members of the organization are to follow in order to achieve the goals. Those members are assumed to be rule-following entities. The organizational reality, of course, is that members of an organization are not rule-following entities and they all do choose their own goals and actions to some extent.

Final Words:

Edgar Morin wonderfully noted that the autonomy of a system is less than the sum of autonomies of all the individual parts of a system. The idea that humans should not be viewed as being parts of a system should challenge your current view points on systems thinking. Kant proposed that we are using an as-if metaphor to construct reality since we do not have access to the external reality. From this standpoint, we can notate that systems are not real entities in the real world. Humans are autonomous and this means that we cannot stipulate purposes for other people. The freedom of the employee puts a constraint on the organization, and the freedom of the organization puts a constraint on the employee. This requires an ongoing reinterpretation and adjustment of intentions and values at all levels of recursions in an organization. This is not a conundrum to be solved. It is a creative tension that should be reinterpreted as often as possible.

I will finish with a Zen story:

A man is riding on top of a horse that is galloping by frantically, as if he has to be somewhere important, as soon as possible. A bystander sees this and asks the man, “Where are you going?

“I don’t know,” the rider replies, “ask the horse!

Wear a mask, stay safe and Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Copernican Revolution – Systems Thinking:

Copernican Revolution – Systems Thinking:

In today’s post, I am looking at “Copernican Revolution”, a phrase used by the great German philosopher, Immanuel Kant. Immanuel Kant is one of the greatest names in philosophy. I am an Engineer by profession, and I started learning philosophy after I left school. As an Engineer, I am trained to think about causality in nature – if I do this, then that happens. This is often viewed as the mechanistic view of nature and it is reliant on empiricism. Empiricism is the idea that knowledge comes from experience. In contrast, at the other end of knowledge spectrum lies rationalism. Rationalism is the idea that knowledge comes from reason (internal). An empiricist can quickly fall into the trap of induction, where you believe that there is uniformity in nature. For example, if I clapped my hand twenty times, and the light flickered each time, I can then (falsely) conclude that the next time I clap my hand the light will flicker. My mind created a causal connection to my hand clapping and the light flickering.

David Hume, another great philosopher, challenged this and identified this approach as the problem of induction. He suggested that we, humans, are creatures of habit that we assign causality to things based on repeat experience. His view was that causality is assigned by us simply by habit. His famous example of challenging whether the sun will rise tomorrow exemplifies this:

That the sun will not rise tomorrow is no less intelligible a proposition, and implies no more contradiction, than the affirmation, that it will rise.

Hume came up with two main categories for human reason, often called Hume’s fork:

  1. Matters of fact – this represents knowledge that we gain from experience (synthetic), and this happens after the fact of experience (denoted by posteriori). An example is – the ball is heavy. Thinking cannot provide the knowledge that the ball is heavy. One has to interact with the ball to learn that the ball is heavy.
  2. Relation of ideas – this represents knowledge that does not rely on experience. This knowledge can be obtained simply through reason (analytic). This was identified as a priori or from before. For example – all bachelors are unmarried. No experience is needed for this knowledge. The meaning of unmarried is predicated in the term “bachelor”.

All the objects of human reason or enquiry may naturally be divided into two kinds, to wit, relations of ideas, and matters of fact. Of the first kind are the sciences of Geometry, Algebra, and Arithmetic … [which are] discoverable by the mere operation of thought … Matters of fact, which are the second object of human reason, are not ascertained in the same manner; nor is our evidence of their truth, however great, of a like nature with the foregoing.

Hume’s fork stipulates that all necessary truths are analytical, the meaning is predicated in the statement. Similarly, knowledge regarding matters of fact indicate that the knowledge is contingent on the experience gotten from the interaction. This leads to further ideas such as – there is a separation between the external world and the knowledge about the world. The knowledge about the world would come only from the world through empiricism. One can view this as the human mind revolving around the world.

Immanuel Kant challenged the idea of Hume’s fork and came up with the idea of a priori synthetic knowledge. Kant proposed that we, humans, are bestowed with a framework for reasoning that is a priori and yet synthetic. Kant synthesized ideas from rationalism and empiricism, and added a third tine to Hume’s fork. Kant famously stated – That all our knowledge begins with experience there can be no doubt. Kant clarified that it does not follow that knowledge arises out of experience. What we come to know is based on our mental faculty. The mind plays an important role in our knowledge of the world. The synthetic a priori propositions say something about the world, and yet at the same time they say something about our mind.

How the world is to us depends on how we experience it, and thus the knowledge of the external world is dependent on the structure of our mind. This idea is often described as a pair of spectacles that we are born with. We see the world through this pair of spectacles that we cannot take off. What we see forms our knowledge of the world, but it is dependent on the pair of spectacles that is a part of us. Kant’s great idea is that our knowledge of the world does not conform to the world. Our knowledge of the world conforms not to the nature of the world, but to the nature of our internal faculties. To paraphrase Heinz von Foerster, we do not see the world as is, it is as we see it.

Nicholas Copernicus, the Polish astronomer, came up with a heliocentric view of the world. The prevalent idea at the time was that the celestial bodies, including the sun, revolved around the earth. Copernicus challenged this, and showed that the earth actually revolves around the sun. Kant, in a similar fashion, suggested that the human minds do not revolve around the world with the meanings coming into our minds. Instead, the world revolves around our minds, and we assign meanings to the objects in the world. This is explained wonderfully by Julie. E. Maybee:

Naïve science assumes that our knowledge revolves around what the world is like, but, Hume’s criticism argued, this view entails that we cannot then have knowledge of scientific causes through reason. We can reestablish a connection between reason and knowledge, however, Kant suggested, if we say—not that knowledge revolves around what the world is like—but that knowledge revolves around what we are like. For the purposes of our knowledge, Kant said, we do not revolve around the world—the world revolves around us. Because we are rational creatures, we share a cognitive structure with one another that regularizes our experiences of the world. This intersubjectively shared structure of rationality—and not the world itself—grounds our knowledge.

Systems:

We have assumed that the knowledge of the world, our cognition, conforms to the world. Kant proposes that all we have access to is the phenomena, and not the actual world. What we are learning is dependent on us. We use an as-if model to generate meaning based on our interaction with the external world. In this viewpoint, the systems are not real things in the world. The systems are concepts that we construct, and they are as-if models that we use to make sense of the phenomena. What we view as systems are the constructions we make and depends on our need for understanding.  

Alan Stewart uses a similar idea to explain his views on constructivism:

The fundamental premise of constructivism is that we humans are self-regulating organisms who live from the inside out. As a philosophical counterpoint to naive realism, constructivism suggests that we are proactive co-creators of the reality to which we respond. Underlying this concept is that perception is an active process in which we ‘bring forth distinctions’. It is our idiosyncratic distinctions which form the structure of the world(s) which each of us inhabits.”

I will finish with a great lesson from Alan Watts:

“Everything in the world is gloriously meaningless.”

To further elaborate, I will add that all meaning comes from us. From a Hume-ian sense, we are creatures of habit in that we cannot stop assigning meaning. From a Kant-ian sense we are law-makers, not law-discoverers.

From a Systems Thinking perspective, we have unique perspectives and we assign meanings based on this. We construct “systems” “as-if” the different parts work together in a way to have a purpose and a meaning, both of which are assigned by us. The meaning comes inside out, not the other way around. To further this idea, as a human collective, we cocreate an emergent phenomenal world. In this aspect, “reality” is multidimensional, and each one of us has a version that is unique to us.  

Stay safe and Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Hegel, Dialectics and POSIWID:

Lillian Gilbreth’s Synthesist:

Lillian Gilbreth is one of my heroes in Industrial Engineering. I have written about her here and here. In today’s post, I am looking at Gilbreth’s idea of an analyst and synthesist. The term “analyst” is in common vocabulary, whereas the term “synthesist” is not. Even Microsoft Word is identifying that the term “synthesist” is incorrect.

In any introduction class to systems thinking, we get introduced to the idea of analysis and synthesis. As Russell Ackoff, the giant in Systems Thinking, teaches us:

A system is a whole which consists of a set of two or more parts. Each part affects the behavior of the whole, depending on how it interacts with the other parts of the system. To understand a system, analysis says to take it apart. But when you take a system apart, it loses all of its essential properties. The discovery that you cannot understand the nature of a system by analysis forced us to realize that another type of thinking was required. Not surprisingly, it came to be called synthesis.

Analysis… reveals structure— how a system works. If you want to repair an automobile, you have to analyze it to find what part isn’t working. Synthesis reveals understanding—why it works the way it does. The automobile, for example, was originally developed for six passengers. But no amount of analysis will help you to find out why. The answer lies in the fact that cars were designed for the average American family, which happened to be 5.6 at the time.

Lillian Gilbreth also talked about analysis and synthesis, back in 1914, in her book, The Psychology of Management. Gilbreth discussed ideas from the British psychologist, James Sully.

Analysis is defined by Sully as follows: “Analysis” is “taking apart more complex processes in order to single out for special inspection their several constituent processes.” He divides elements of thought activity into two:

(a) analysis: abstraction, (b) synthesis: comparison.”

Gilbreth further clarified what an analyst does:

ANALYST’S WORK IS DIVISION. – It is the duty of the analyst to divide the work that he is set to study into the minutest divisions possible.

She went on to describe the qualifications of an analyst.

QUALIFICATIONS OF AN ANALYST. – To be most successful, an analyst should have ingenuity, patience, and that love of dividing a process into its component parts and studying each separate part that characterizes the analytic mind. The analyst must be capable of doing accurate work, and orderly work.

To get the most pleasure and profit from his work he should realize that his great, underlying purpose is to relieve the worker of unnecessary fatigue, to shorten his work period per day, and to increase the number of his days and years of higher earning power. With this realization will come an added interest in his subject.

Gilbreth defined the role of a synthesist as follows:

THE SYNTHESIST’S WORK IS SELECTION AND ADDITION. – The synthesist studies the individual results of the analyst’s work, and their inter-relation, and determines which of these should be combined, and in what manner, for the most economic result. His duty is to construct that combination of the elements which will be most efficient.

The qualifications of a synthesist was explained as:

QUALIFICATIONS OF THE SYNTHESIST. – The synthesist must have a constructive mind, for he determines the sequence of events as well as the method of attack. He must have the ability to see the completed whole which he is trying to make, and to regard the elements with which he works not only as units, but in relation to each other. He must feel that any combination is influenced not only by the elements that go into it, but by the inter-relation between these elements. This differs for different combinations as in a kaleidoscope.

The relationship between the analyst and synthesist was best explained by Gilbreth as:

If synthesis in Scientific Management were nothing more than combining all the elements that result from analysis into a whole, it would be valuable. Any process studied analytically will be performed more intelligently, even if there is no change in the method. But the most important part of the synthesist’s work is the actual elimination of elements which are useless, and the combination of the remaining elements in such a way, or sequence, or schedule, that a far better method than the one analyzed will result.

Final Words:

Lillian Gilbreth’s ideas, as the cliché goes, were truly ahead of her times. We have all benefited from her brilliance. Gilbreth viewed a synthesist as a conserver of a valuable elements as well as an inventor involved in invention of better methods of doing work, such as tools or equipment. She also said that a synthesist is a discoverer of laws because they have the ability to understand why the parts are working the way they are, in relation to one another. A systems thinker fuses analysis and synthesis. Moreover, a systems thinker should be able to find differences among apparently similar things and similarities among apparently different things.

I will finish with further ideas from the 18th century French Philosopher Victor Cousin:

The legitimacy of every synthesis is directly owing to the exactness of analysis; every system which is merely [sic] an hypothesis is a vain system; every synthesis which has not been preceded by analysis is a pure imagination: but at the same time every analysis which does not aspire to a synthesis which maybe equal to it, is an analysis which halts on the way.

On the one hand, synthesis without analysis gives a false science; on the other hand, analysis without synthesis gives an incomplete science.

Stay safe and Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was The Truths of Complexity:

The System in the Box:

W

In today’s post, I am looking at the brilliant philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “The Beetle in the Box” analogy.

Wittgenstein rose to fame with his first book, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, in which he proposed the idea of a picture theory for words. Very loosely put, words correspond to objects in the real world, and any statement should be a picture of these objects in relation to one another. For example, “the cat is on the mat.” However, in his later years Wittgenstein turned away from his ideas. He came to see the meaning of words in how they are used. The meaning is in its use by the public. He came to realize that private language is not possible. To provide a simple explanation, we need an external reference to calibrate meanings to our words. If you are experiencing pain, all you can say is that you experience pain. While the experience of pain is private, all we have is a public language to explain it in. For example, if we experience a severe pain on Monday and decided to call it “X”. A week from that day, if you have some pain and you decide to call it “Y”, one cannot be sure if “X” was the same as “Y”.

The beetle in the box analogy is detailed in his second book released posthumously, Philosophical Investigations:

Suppose everyone had a box with something in it: we call it a ‘beetle’. No one can look into anyone else’s box, and everyone says he knows what a beetle is by looking at his beetle. Here it would be quite possible for everyone to have something different in his box. One might even imagine such a thing constantly changing. But suppose the word ‘beetle’ had a use in these people’s language? If so, it would not be used as the name of a thing. The thing in the box has no place in the language-game at all; not even as a something: for the box might even be empty. No one can ‘divide through’ by the thing in the box; it cancels out, whatever it is.

The beetle in the box is a thought experiment to show that private language is not possible. The beetle in my box is visible to only me, and I cannot see the beetle in anybody else’s box. All I can see is the box. The way that I understand the beetle or the word “beetle” is by interacting with others. I learn about the meaning only through the use of the word in conversations with others and how others use that word. This is true, even if they cannot see my beetle or if I cannot see their beetle. I can never experience and thus know their pain or any other private sensations. But we all use the same words to explain how each of us experience the world. The word beetle becomes whatever is in the box, even if the beetles are of different colors, sizes, types etc. Sometimes, the beetles could even be absent. The box in this case is the public language we use to explain the beetle which is the private experience. The meaning of the word beetle then is not what it refers to, but the meaning is determined by how it is used by all of us. It is an emergent phenomenon. And sometimes, the meaning itself changes over time. There is no way for me to know what your beetle looks like. The box comes to represent the beetle.

I love this thought experiment because we all assume that we can tell what others feel like. We talk as if we are all talking about the same world. We talk about the beetle as if everybody has the same beetle in their boxes. Everyone’s world is different, and their worlds are constructed based on their worldviews, mental models, schemas, biases etc. The construction is a dynamic and ongoing process. The construction is a recursive process in the sense, our construction influences how we interact in the world, which in turn influences the ongoing construction of the world. From this standpoint, we can see that reality is multidimensional and that there are as many realities as the number of participants. There is no one reality, and we cannot assume that our reality is the correct one. What exists is a cocreated reality with others, and this co-constructing activity is on a delicate balance. Nobody knows everything, but everybody knows something. Nobody has access to a true reality. To paraphrase Heinz von Foerster, we do not see it as it is, it is as we see it.

We all talk about systems as if we all know what they mean. We say that we need to think about the purpose of the system or that it is the system, not the people. Systems are mental constructs we create based on our worldviews to make sense of phenomena around us. Most of the time when we talk about systems, we are speaking about a “part”. For example, when we talk about the “transportation system”, we are actually meaning the bus that is running late. Similar to the beetle in the box, my system is not the same as your system. My view of the healthcare system changes when I become sick versus when I am healthy. The same system has a different meaning and purpose if you are a healthcare worker versus if you are on the board of the hospital. We cannot stipulate a purpose for the system because systems do not have ontological status. We cannot also stipulate a purpose of a co-creator. To do so will be to assume that we can see the beetle in their box. The great Systems Thinker West Churchman said that systems approach starts when one sees the world through another person’s eyes. Wittgenstein would say that this is impossible. But I think what Churchman was getting at is to realize that our “system” is not the only system. What we need is to seek understanding. With this view, Churchman also said that, there are no experts in the systems approach. Werner Ulrich, who built upon the ideas of Churchman said the following:

The systems idea, provided we take it seriously, urges us to recognize our constant failure to think and act rationally in a comprehensive sense. Mainstream systems literature somehow always manages to have us forget the fact that a lack of comprehensive rationality is inevitably part of the conditio humana. Most authors seek to demonstrate how and why their systems approaches extend the bounds of rational explanation or design accepted in their fields. West Churchman never does. To him, the systems idea poses a challenge to critical self-reflection. It compels him to raise fundamental epistemological and ethical issues concerning the systems planner’s claim to rationality. He never pretends to have the answers; instead, he asks himself and his readers a lot of thoroughly puzzling questions.

Even though systems are not real, we still use the word to further explain our thoughts and ideas. Ulrich continues:

What matters is ultimately not that we achieve comprehensive knowledge about the system in question (an impossible feat) but rather, that we understand the reasons and implications of our inevitable lack of comprehensive knowledge.

 The crucial issue, then, is no longer “What do we know?” but rather “How do we deal with the fact that we don’t know enough?” In particular, uncertainty about the whole systems implications of our actions does not dispense us from moral responsibility; hence, “the problem of systems improvement is the problem of the ‘ethics of the whole system’.”

 A book on morals is not moral. We cannot assume full access to the real world and stipulate purposes for our fellow cocreators. The purpose of language is to not expose our thoughts, but to make them presentable. In today’s world where complexity is ever increasing due to increasing connections, the beetle in the box analogy is important to remember.

 Similar to the famous credit card ad, I ask, “What is in your box?

Stay safe and Always keep on learning…

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

The Whole is ________ than the sum of its parts:

Rubin2

One of the common expressions depicting holistic thinking is – “the whole is larger/greater than the sum of its parts.” In today’s post I would like to look at this expression from a few different perspectives.

Kurt Koffka:

Kurt Koffka (1886 – 1941), the brilliant Gestalt psychologist said, “the whole is other than the sum of its parts.” Koffka was adamant to not misstate him as the whole being larger than the sum of its parts. He was pointing out that the whole is not merely an addition of parts, and that the whole has a separate existence. We humans tend to organize our percepts into wholes. Our mental shortcuts first make us see the whole, rather than the parts. The term “gestalt” itself refers to form or pattern. We are prone to identifying larger patterns from partial data.

Andras Angyal:

Andras Angyal (1902 – 1960) was an American psychiatrist and a Systems Theorist. He emphasized the importance of positional values of parts within a system. He did not view the whole being more than the sum of its parts.

Summation, however, is not organization, but it is of little help simply to say that a system is more than the sum of its parts…“A system is a distribution of constituents with positional values in a dimensional domain.” Functional relationship is the key concept of the reductive approach. For a systems approach a different concept, such as that of positional value, is required which expresses arrangement and compels reference of the parts back to the whole. The value of parts is what they do for the whole. Their function is its maintenance. Only a whole maintained in this way can relate to an environment. To make possible relations with an environment is the function of the whole.

An easy example is to put together three sticks of different lengths. The order of the sticks does not matter for the total length of the three sticks put together. For contrast, let’s look at a car. For a car, the positional value or the order of the parts are of utmost importance. They have to go together in a specific manner for the car to be a car.

Edgar Morin:

Edgar Morin, the brilliant French philosopher says that “the whole is less than the sum of its parts.” This is a powerful statement. The parts lose its freedom when it is constrained to be in a specific form of organization. The whole is more constrained, or has less freedom than the sum of freedoms of the parts put together. The parts give up some of its properties when it organizes to be a whole. At the same time, the whole is also more than the sum of its parts. Morin says:

In order to understand the apparent contradiction of a whole that is simultaneously more and less than the sum of its parts, I claim the heritage of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, from the 6th century BC: when you reach a contradiction, it doesn’t necessarily mean an error, but rather that you have touched on a fundamental problem. Therefore, I believe that these contradictions should be recognized and upheld, rather than circumvented.

Additionally, Morin stated:

The whole is greater than the sum of the parts (a principle which is widely acknowledged and intuitively recognized at all macroscopic levels), since a macro-unity arises at the level of the whole, along with emergent phenomena, i.e., new qualities or properties.

The whole is less than the sum of the parts, since some of the qualities or properties of the parts are inhibited or suppressed altogether under the influence of the constraints resulting from the organization of the whole.

The whole is greater than the whole, since the whole as a whole affects the parts retroactively, while the parts in turn retroactively affect the whole (in other words, the whole is more than a global entity-it has a dynamic organization).

Morin had strong words about just using holism:

Holism is a partial, one-dimensional, and simplifying vision of the whole. It reduces all other system-related ideas to the idea of totality, whereas it should be a question of confluence. Holism thus arises from the paradigm of simplification (or reduction of the complex to a master-concept or master-category).

Final Words:

The idea that the whole is different or other than the sum of its parts is a different way of thinking. Holism can be as limiting as reductionism. One might say that thinking in terms of wholes is very much thinking in terms of parts since the whole can be construed to be a part of a larger system. The emphasis is on the observer and the purpose that the observer has with the specific perspective that he or she is taking. All humans are purposeful creatures. What one observes, depends upon the properties of the observer. This also means that the other observers, the cocreators or the participants in the system, have their own purposes. We cannot stipulate the purpose(s) for a fellow being. To paraphrase West Churchman, systems thinking begins when one sees through the eyes of another.

The idea that the whole is more important than the part should be challenged, especially when it comes to human systems. All human systems are in a delicate balance with each other, which can tip one way or the other based on emerging attractors. The individual strives for autonomy, while the larger human systems the individual is part of, strive for homonomy. One should not ignore the other.

I will finish with another lesson from Morin:

The parts are at once less and greater than the parts. The most remarkable emergent phenomena within a highly complex system, such as human society, occur not only at the level of the whole (society), but also at the level of the individuals (even especially at that level-witness the fact that self-consciousness only emerges in individuals). In this sense: The parts are sometimes greater than the whole. As Stafford Beer has noted: “[T]he most profitable control system for the parts does not exclude the bankruptcy of the whole.” “Progress” does not necessarily consist in the construction of larger and larger wholes; on the contrary, it may lie in the freedom and independence of small components. The richness of the universe is not found in its dissipative totality, but in the small reflexive entities-the deviant and peripheral units-which have self-assembled within it…

Always keep on learning…

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

Constructivism at the Gemba:

forester

Gemba is one of the most emphasized words in Toyota Production System and Lean. Gemba is where the real action takes place, where one should go to gather the facts. As I ventured into Systems Thinking and Cybernetics, especially the teachings of Heinz von Foerster, it gave me a chance to reflect upon ‘gemba’. Often, we talk about gemba being an objective reality existing independent of us, and one which we can understand if we spend enough time in it. What I have come to realize is that the question of whether an objective reality exists is not the right one to ask. For me, the important question is not whether there is a reality (ontology), but how do you come to know that which we refer to as reality (epistemology).

I will start off with the famous aphorism of West Churchman, a key Systems Thinker:

“A systems approach begins when first you see the world through the eyes of another.”

We all have different worldviews. Your “reality” is different than mine, because you and I are different. We have our own unique experiences that shape our worldviews. One could say that we have constructed a stable reality based on our experiences. We learn in school that we should separate the observed from the observer to make valid observations. The idea of constructivism challenges this. Constructivism teaches that any observation made cannot be independent of the observer. Think about this – what we are reacting to, is actually a model of the world we have built in our heads. This world is constructed based on repeat experiences. The repeat experiences have trained our brain to identify correlations that we can experience when we come across a similar experience again. This is detailed in the excellent book on Heinz von Foerster by Lynn Segal (The Dream of Reality: Heinz Von Foerster’s Constructivism):

The constructivists challenge the idea that we match experience to reality. They argue instead that we “re-cognize” a reality through the intercorrelation of the activities of the various sense organs. It is through these computed correlations that we recognize a reality. No findings exist independently of observers. Observing systems can only correlate their sense experiences with themselves and each other. “All we have are correlations,” says von Foerster. “I see the pencil and I hold the pencil; I can correlate my experience of the pencil and use it… There is indeed a deep epistemological divide that separates the two notions of reality, the one characterized by use of the definite article (“the reality”), the other by the indefinite article (“a reality”). The first depends on the assumption that independent observations confirm the existence of the real world, the second, on the assumption the correlation of independent observations leads to the construction of a real world. To wit, the school says my sensation of touch is confirmation for my visual sensation that ‘here is a table.’ A school says my sensation of touch, in correlation with my visual sensation, generates an experience that I may describe as ‘here is a table.’ “

Von Foerster takes this idea further with an excellent gem:

Properties associated with things are indeed properties that belong to the observer. Obscenity- what’s obscene resides in the observer. If Mr. X says this picture is obscene, then we know something about Mr. X and nothing about the picture.

Ludwig von Bertalanffy, one of the founding fathers of Systems Theory, also had similar ideas. He noted in his 1955 essay, “An Essay on the Relativity of Categories”:

It seems to be the most serious shortcoming of classic occidental philosophy, from Plato to Descartes and Kant, to consider man primarily as a spectator, as ens cogitans, while, for biological reasons, he has essentially to be a performer, an ens agens in the world he is thrown in… the conception of the forms of experience as an adaptive apparatus proved in millions of years of struggle for existence, guarantees that there is a sufficient correspondence between “appearance” and “reality”. Any stimulus is experienced not as it is but as the organism reacts to it, and thus the world-picture is determined by psychophysical organization… perception and experienced categories need not mirror the “real” world; they must, however, be isomorphic to it to such degree as to allow orientation and thus survival. What traits of reality we grasp in our theoretical system is arbitrary in the epistemological sense, and determined by biological, cultural and probably linguistic factors?

An important outcome of accepting the idea of constructivism is the realization that I, as the constructor, am responsible for the reality that I create. I cannot revoke my responsibility for my reality nor my actions. I will further this again by using a von Foerster quote:

“Ontology, and objectivity as well, are used as emergency exits for those who wish to obscure their freedom of choice, and by this to escape the responsibility of their decisions.”

With this, we come to realize that our reality is not the only valid reality. As a constructivist, we realize that others have their own versions of reality.

“The only thing you can do as a constructivist is to give others the opportunity to construct their own world.”

Heinz von Foerster captured this with his two imperatives:

Von Foerster’s Ethical Imperative: “Always act in ways that create new possibilities.”

Von Foerster’s aesthetic imperative: “if you want to SEE, learn how to act.”

The ethical imperative is an invitation to realize that there are other participants in your reality, who themselves create their own versions of realities. The aesthetic imperative similarly is an invitation to reflect that objective reality is not possible. One has to interact and experience to construct a stable reality. Additionally, there are certain things that cannot be made explicit. These have to be implicit in action. My own humble take on the aesthetic imperative is – “if you want to SHOW, learn how to act.” The two imperatives flow into each other nicely. Von forester teaches that we should ensure autonomy for the other participants. For if we do not stipulate autonomy, then the observation does not result in interaction and thus minimize the experience. The concept of observation itself disappears. We should give the responsibility for others to construct their own reality as autonomous agents. In order to see, there has to be interaction between sensorium and motorium.

The idea of autonomous agents is important in constructivism. As Ernst von Glasersfeld puts it: “From the constructivist perspective, ‘input’ is of course not what an external agent or world puts in, but what the system experiences.” This means that we cannot simply command and expect the participants to follow through the orders. This is the idea of viewing the worker as a machine, not as a thinking agent.We should not stipulate the purpose of another. The participants at the gemba must be given the freedom to construct their own stable reality. This includes stipulating their own purposes. Voiding this takes away their freedom of choice and responsibility from the participants.

This brings us back to the original point about gemba. When you go to gemba, you are trying to gather facts from the real place. But as we have been reflecting, reality is not something objective. We need to seek understanding from others’ viewpoints. If we do not seek understanding from others, our reality will not include their versions. Our models will remain our own, one full of our own biases and weaknesses. There is no one Gemba out there. Gemba is a socially constructed reality, one that is a combination of everybody’s constructed reality. As noted earlier, to improve our experience, we should go to gemba often. Our experience helps with our construction of stable reality, which in turn improves our experience. This idea of closure is important in cybernetics and constructivism. We will use another von Foerster gem to improve this understanding – “Experience is the cause. The world is the consequence.”

The very act of knowing that our knowledge is incomplete or imperfect is a second order act. This allows us to perform other second order acts such as thinking about thinking. The idea of constructivism and the rejection of an objective reality might challenge your current mental paradigm of the world. But this is an important idea to at least consider.

I will finish this post with yet another wonderful von Foerster gem, where he talks about Alfred Korzybski’s famous quote, “The map is not the territory.”:

“Ladies and Gentlemen, I am glad that you are all seated, for now comes the Heinz von Foerster theorem: ‘The map is the territory’ because we don’t have anything else but maps. We only have depictions or presentations – I wouldn’t even say re-presentations – that we can braid together within language with the other.”

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was If the Teacher Hasn’t Learned, the Teacher Hasn’t Taught:

Cybernetics and Design – Poka Yoke, Two Hypotheses and More:

sonic screwdriver

In today’s post I am looking at “Design” from a cybernetics viewpoint. My inspirations for today’s post are Ross Ashby, Stafford Beer, Klaus Krippendorff, Paul Pangaro and Ranulph Glanville. The concept I was originally playing around was how the interface of a device conveys the message to the user on how to interact with the device. For example, if you see a button, you are invited to press on it. In a similar vein, if you see a dial, you know to twist the dial up or down. By looking at the ideas of cybernetics, I feel that we can expand upon this further.

Ross Ashby, one of the pioneers of Cybernetics defined variety as the number of possible elements(states) of a system. A stoplight, for example, generally has three states (Red, Green and Yellow). Additional states are possible, such as (blinking red, no light, simultaneous combinations of two or three lights). Of all the possible states identified, the stoplight is constrained to have only three states. If the stoplight is not able to regulate the traffic in combination with similar stoplights, acting in tandem, the traffic gets heavy resulting in a standstill. Thus, we can say that the stoplight was lacking the requisite variety. Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety states that only variety can destroy (absorb) variety. This means that the regulator should have enough variety to absorb any perturbations in order to truly manage a system. Unfortunately, the external variety is always larger than the internal variety. In other words, the regulator has to have the means to filter out unwanted external variety and it should amplify the internal variety to stay viable. An important concept to grasp with this idea is that the number of distinguishable states (and thus variety) depends upon the ability of the observer. In this regard, the variety of a system may be dependent on the observer.

With these concepts in mind, I will introduce two ideas (hypotheses) that I have been playing with:

1) Purpose hypothesis: The user determines the purpose/use of a device.

2) Counteraction hypothesis: When presented with a complex situation, the user generally seeks simplicity. When presented with a simple situation, the user generally seeks complexity.

Harish’s Purpose Hypothesis: The user determines the purpose/use of a device.

The user is external to the design of a device. The user at any given point has more variety than the simple device. Thus, the user ultimately determines the purpose of a device. How many times have you used a simple screwdriver for other purposes than screwing/unscrewing a screw?

Harish’s Counteraction hypothesis: When presented with a complex situation, the user generally seeks simplicity. When presented with a simple situation, the user generally seeks complexity.

The user has a tendency to move away from the perceived complexity of a device. If it is viewed as simple, the user will come up with complex ways to use it. If it is viewed as complex, the user will try to come up with simple ways to use the device. Complexity is in the eyes of the beholder. This can be also explained asUpon realizing that something is not working, a rational being, instead of continuing on the same path, will try to do the opposite. A good example is a spreadsheet – in the hands of an expert, the spreadsheet can be used for highly complicated mathematical simulations with numerous macros, and alternately, in the hands of a novice, the spreadsheet is just a table with some data points. In a similar way, if something is perceived as complex, the user will find a way to simplify the work to get the bare minimum output.

The Cybernetic Dance between the Designer and the User:

There is a dance between the designer and the user, and the medium of the dance is the interface of the device. The designer has to anticipate the different ways the user can interface with the device, and make the positive mannerisms attractive and the negative mannerisms unattractive. In the cybernetics terms, the designer has to amplify the desirable variety of the device so that the user is more likely to choose the correct way the device should be used. The designer also has to attenuate the undesirable variety so that the user will not choose the incorrect ways of use. If the design interface is providing a consistent message each time, then the entropy of the message is said to be zero. There is no change in the “message” conveyed by the design. One of the concepts in Lean is poka yoke or error proofing a device. From what we have seen so far, we can say that a successful poka yoke device has the requisite variety. The message conveyed by the device is consistent and the user always chooses the correct sequence of operation.

Krippendorff explains this nicely in terms of affordances of a device: [1]

When an interface works as expected, one can say with James Gibson (1979) that the artifact in question affords the construction that a user has of it; and when it does not work as expected, one can say that the artifact objects to being treated the way it is, without revealing why this is so.

Krippendorff also explains that the interface does not carry a message from the designer to the user. This is an interesting concept. Krippendorff further explains that the user assigns the meaning from how the user interacts with the device. The challenge then to the designer is to understand the problem, and determine the easiest way to solve it.

Different people may interface rather differently with the same artifact. What is a screwdriver for one person, may be an ice pick, a lever to pry a can of paint open, and a way to bolt a door for another. Human-centered designers must realize that they interface with their artifacts in anticipation that the result of their interactions affords others to meaningfully interface with their design—without being able to tell them how.

An interface consists of sequences of ideally meaningful interactions—actions followed by reactions followed by responses to these reactions and so on—leading to a desirable state. This circularity evidently is the same circularity that cybernetics theorizes, including what it converges to, what it brings forth. In human terms, the key to such interactions, such circularities, is their meaningfulness, the understanding of what one does in it, and towards which ends. Probably most important to human-centeredness is the axiom:

Humans do not respond to the physical qualities of things but act on what they mean to them (Krippendorff, 2006a).

Variety Costs Money:

Another concept from the cybernetics viewpoint is that adding variety costs money. In theory, a perfect device could be designed, but this would not be practical from a cost standpoint. Afterall, a low price is one of the ways the designer can amplify variety. A good story to reflect this is the design of the simple USB. A USB cord is often cited as an example for poka yoke. There is only way to insert it into the port. When you think about it, a USB pin has two states for insertion, of which only one is correct. There is no immediate standard way that the user can tell how it can be inserted. Thus, the USB lacks the requisite variety and it can lead to dissatisfaction of the user. Now the obvious question is why this is not an issue on a different connector such as Apple’s lightning cord, which can be inserted either way. It turns out that the lack of variety for the USB was on purpose. It was an effort to save money.[2]

A USB that could plug in correctly both ways would have required double the wires and circuits, which would have then doubled the cost. The Intel team led by Bhatt anticipated the user frustration and opted for a rectangular design and a 50-50 chance to plug it in correctly, versus a round connector with less room for error.

Feedback must be Instantaneous:

Paul Pangaro defines Cybernetics as:

Cybernetics is about having a goal and taking action to achieve that goal. Knowing whether you have reached your goal (or at least are getting closer to it) requires “feedback”, a concept that was made rigorous by cybernetics.

Thus, we can see that the device should be designed so that any error must be made visible to the user immediately and the user can correct the error to proceed. Any delay in this can only further add to the confusion of the user. The designer has to take extreme care to reduce the user’s cognitive load, when the user is interfacing with the device. Paraphrasing Michael Jackson (not the singer), from the cybernetics standpoint, the organization of the device should have the best possible model of the environment relevant to its purposes. The organization’s structure and information flows should reflect the nature of that environment so that the organization is responsive to it.

Final Words:

I will finish with wise words from Krippendorff regarding how the user perceives meaning by interfacing with a device.

Unlike what semiotics conceptualizes, from a cybernetic perspective, artifacts do not “carry” meanings from designers to their users. They do not “contain” messages or “represent” meanings…

For example, the meaning of a button is what pressing it sets in motion: ringing an alarm, saving a file or starting a car. The meaning of a soccer ball is the role it plays in a game of soccer and especially what its players can do with it. The meaning of an architectural space is what it encourages its inhabitants to do in it, including how comfortable they feel. The meaning of a chair is the perceived ability to sit on it for a while, stand on it to reach something high up, keep books on it handy, for children to play house by covering it with a blanket, and staple several of them for storage. For its manufacturer, a chair is a product; for its distributor, a problem of getting it to a retailer; for a merchant it means profit; for its user, it may also be a conversation piece, an investment, a way to complete a furniture arrangement, an identity marker, and more.

Typically, artifacts afford many meanings for different people, in different situations, at different times, and in the context of other artifacts. Although someone may consider one meaning more important than another, even by settling on a definition—like a chair in terms of affording sitting on it—it would be odd if an artifact could not afford its associated uses. One can define the meaning of any artifact as the set of anticipated uses as recognized by a particular individual or community of users. One can list these uses and empirically study whether this set is afforded by particular artifacts and how well. Taking the premise of second-order cybernetics seriously and applying the axioms of human-centeredness to designers and users alike calls on designers to conceive of their job not as designing particular products, but to design affordances for users to engage in the interfaces that are meaningful to them, the very interfaces that constitute these users’ conceptions of an artifact, for example, of a chair, a building or a place of work.

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was A Study of “Organizational Closure” and Autopoiesis:

[1] The Cybernetics of Design and the Design of Cybernetics – Klaus Krippendorff

[2] Ever Plugged A USB In Wrong? Of Course You Have. Here’s Why

A Study of “Organizational Closure” and Autopoiesis:

autopoiesis

In today’s post, I am looking at the phrase “Organizational Closure” and the concept of autopoiesis. But before that, I would like to start with another phrase “Information Tight”. Both of these phrases are of great importance in the field of Cybernetics. I first came across the phrase “Information Tight” in Ross Ashby’s book, “An Introduction to Cybernetics”. Ross Ashby was one of the pioneers of Cybernetics. Ashby said: [1]

Cybernetics might, in fact, be defined as the study of systems that are open to energy but closed to information and control— systems that are “information‐tight”.

This statement can be confusing at first, when you look at it from the perspective of Thermodynamics. Ashby is defining “information tight” as being closed to information and control. The Cybernetician, Bernard Scott views this as: [2]

…an organism does not receive “information” as something transmitted to it, rather, as a circularly organized system it interprets perturbations as being informative.

Here the “tightness” refers to the circular causality of the internal structure of a system. This concept was later developed as “Organization Closure” by the Chilean biologists, Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela. [3] They were trying to answer two questions:

  • What is the organization of the living?
  • What takes place in the phenomenon of perception?

In answering these two questions, they came up with the concept of Autopoiesis. Auto – referring to self, and poiesis – referring to creation or generation. Autopoiesis means self-generation. Escher’s “Drawing Hands” is a good visualization of this concept. We exist in the continuous production of ourselves.

Escher

As British organizational theorist, John Mingers put it: [4]

Maturana and Varela developed the concept of autopoiesis in order to explain the essential characteristics of living as opposed to nonliving systems. In brief, a living system such as a cell has an autopoietic organization, that is, it is ”self-producing. ” It consists of processes of production which generate its components. These components themselves participate in the processes of production in a continual recursive re-creation of self. Autopoietic systems produce themselves and only themselves.

John H Little provides further explanation: [5]

Autopoietic systems, are self-organizing in that they produce and change their own structures but they also produce their own components… The system’s production of components is entirely internal and does not depend on an input-output relation with the system environment.

Two important principles underlying autopoiesis are “structural determinism” and “organizational closure.” To understand these principles, it is first necessary to understand the difference between “structure” and “organization” as Maturana uses these terms. “Organization” refers to the relations between components which give a system its identity. If the organization of a system changes, its identity changes. “Structure” refers to the actual components and relations between components that make up a particular example of a type of system.

Conceptually, we may understand the distinction between organization and structure by considering a simple mechanical device, such as a pencil. We generally have little difficulty recognizing a machine which is organized as a “pencil” despite the fact that pencil may be structurally built in a variety of ways and of a variety of materials. One organizational type, therefore may be manifested by any number of different structural arrangements.

Marjatta Maula provides additional information on the “organization” and “structure”, two important concepts in autopoiesis.

In autopoiesis theory, the concepts ‘organization’ and ‘structure’ of a system have a specific meaning. ‘Organization’ refers to an idea (such as an idea of airplane or a company in general). ‘Structure’ refers to the actual embodiment of the idea (such as a specific airplane or a specific company). Thus, ‘organization’ is abstract but ‘structure’ is concrete (Mingers, 1997). Over time an autopoietic system may change its components and structure but maintain its ‘organization.’ In this case, the system sustains its identity. If a system’s ‘organization’ changes, it loses its current identity (von Krogh & Roos, 1995). [6]

The most important idea that Maturana and Varela put forward was that an autopoietic system does not take in information from its environment and an external agent cannot control an autopoietic system. Autopoietic systems are organizationally (or operationally) closed. That is to say, the behavior of the system is not specified or controlled by its environment but entirely by its own structure, which specifies how the system will behave under all circumstances. It is as a consequence of this closure that living systems cannot have “inputs” or “outputs”-nor can they receive or produce information-in any sense in which these would have independent, objective reality outside the system. Put in another way, since the system determines its own behavior, there can be no “instructive interactions” by means of which something outside the system determines its behavior. A system’s responses are always determined by its structure, although they may be triggered by an environmental event.[7]

Although organizationally closed, a system is not disconnected from its environment, but in fact in constant interaction with it. Maturana and Varela (1987) call this ongoing process “structural coupling” (p. 75). System and environment (which will include other systems) act as mutual sources of perturbation for one another, triggering changes of state in one another. Over time, provided there are no destructive interactions between the system and the medium in which it realizes itself (i.e., its environment), the system will appear to an observer to adapt to its environment. What is in fact happening, though, is a process of structural “drift” occurring as the system responds to successive perturbations in the environment according to its structure at each moment. [7]

In other words, the idea of an organism as an information processing agent is a misunderstanding. When you look at it further, although it might appear as strange, little by little, it might make sense. Think about a classroom, a teacher is giving a lecture and the same “information” reaches the students. However, what type and amount of “information” is taken in depends on each individual student. Maturana explains it as the teacher makes the selection (in the form of the lecture), however, the teacher cannot make the student accept the “information” in its entirety. A loose analogy is a person pushing a button on a vending machine. The internal structure of the machine determines how to react. If the machine does not have a closed structure inside, it cannot react. The pressing of the button is viewed as a perturbation, and the vending machine reacts based on its internal structure at that point in time. If the vending machine was out of order or if there was something blocking the item, the machine will not dispense even if the external agent “desired” the machine to reach in a specific way.

According to Maturana, all systems consisting of components are structure-determined, which is to say that the actual changes within the system depend on the structure itself at that particular instant. Any change in such a system must be a structural change. If this is the case, then an environmental action cannot determine its own effect on a system. Changes, or perturbations in the environment can only trigger structural change or compensation. “It is the structure that determines both what the compensation will be and even what in the environment can or cannot act as a trigger” (Mingers, 1995, p. 30).

It is the internal structure of the system at any point in time that determines:

  1. all possible structural changes within the system that maintain the current organization, as well as those that do not, and
  2. all possible states of the environment that could trigger changes of state and whether such changes would maintain or destroy the current organization (Mingers, 1995, p. 30).[5]

As we understand the idea of autopoiesis, we start to realize that it has serious implications. Our abstract concept of a process is shown below:[5]

INPUT -> PROCESS -> OUTPUT

In light of autopoiesis, we can see that this abstraction does not make sense. An autopoietic system cannot accept inputs. We treat information and knowledge as a commodity that can be easily coded, stored and transferred. Again, in the light of autopoietic systems, we require a new paradigm. As Little continues:[5]

An organizationally closed system is one in which all possible states of activity always lead to or generate further activity within itself… Organizationally closed systems do not have external inputs that change their organization, nor do they outputs in terms of their organization. Autopoietic systems are organizationally closed and do not have inputs and outputs in terms of their organization. They may appear to have them, but that description only pertains to an observer who can see both the system and its environment, and is a mischaracterization of the system. The idea of organizational closure, however, does not imply that such systems have no interactions with their environment. Although their organization is closed, they still interact with their environment through their structure, which is open.

John Mingers provides further insight: [4]

Consider the idea that the environment does not determine, but only triggers neuronal activity. Another way of saying this is that the structure of the nervous system at a particular time determines both what can trigger it and what the outcome will be. At most, the environment can select between alter­natives that the structure allows. This is really an obvious situation of which we tend to lose sight. By analogy, consider the humming computer on my desk. Many interactions, e.g., tapping the monitor and drawing on the unit, have no effect. Even pressing keys depends on the program recognizing them, and press­ing the same key will have quite different effects depending on the computer’s current state. We say, “I’ll just save this file,” and do so with the appropriate keys as though these actions in themselves bring it about. In reality the success (or lack of it) depends entirely on our hard-earned structural coupling with the machine and its software in a wider domain, as learning a new system reminds us only too well.

Another counterintuitive idea was put forth by the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann, that further elaborates the autopoietic system’s autonomous nature and the “independence” from the external agent:

The memory function never relates to facts of the outer world . . . but only to the states of the system itself. In other words, a system can only remember itself.

An obvious question at this point is – If a system is so independent of its environment, how does it come to be so well adjusted, and how do systems come to develop such similar structures?[4]

The answer lies in Maturana’s concept of structural coupling. An autopoietic organization is realized in a particular structure. In general, this structure will be plastic, i.e., changeable, but the changes that it undergoes all maintain auto poiesis so long as the entity persists. (If it suffers an interaction which does not maintain autopoiesis, then it dies.) While such a system exists in an environ­ment which supplies it with necessities for survival, then it will have a structure suitable for that environment or autopoiesis will not continue. The system will be structurally coupled to its medium. This, however, is always a contingent matter and the particular structure that develops is determined by the system. More generally, such a system may become structurally coupled with other systems-the behavior of one becomes a trigger for the other, and vice versa.

Maturana and Varela did not extend the concept of autopoiesis to a larger level such as a society or an organization. Several others took this idea and went further. [8]

Using the tenets of autopoietic theory (Zeleny: 2005), he interprets organizations as networks of interactions, reactions and processes identified by their organization (network of rules of coordination) and differentiated by their structure (specific spatio-temporal manifestations of applying the rules of coordination under specific conditions or contexts). Following these definitions, Zeleny argues that the only way to make organizational change effective is to change the rules of behavior (the organization) first and then change processes, routines, and procedures (the structure). He explains that it is the system of the rules of coordination, rather than the processes themselves, that defines the nature of recurrent execution of coordinated action (recurrence being the necessary condition for learning to occur). He states: ‘Organization drives the structure, structure follows organization, and the observer imputes function’.

 Espejo, Schumann, Schwaninger, and Bilello (1996)adopt similar terminology, but instead of organization they refer to an organization’s identity as the element that defines any organization, explaining that it is the relationships between the participants that create the distinct identity for the network or the group. Organization is then defined as ‘a closed network of relationships with an identity of its own’. While organizations may share the same kind of identity, they are distinguished by their structures. People’s relationships form routines, involving roles, procedures, and uses of resources that constitute stable forms of interaction. These allow the integrated use and operation of the organization’s resources. The emergent routines and mechanisms of interaction then constitute the organization’s structure. Hence, just like any autopoietic entity, organizations as social phenomena are characterized by both an organization (or identity) and a structure. The rules of interaction established by the organization and the execution of the rules exhibited by the structure form a recursive bond.

Final Words:

I highly encourage the readers to pursue understanding of autopoiesis. It is an important concept that requires a shift in your thinking.

I will finish off with an example of autopoietic system that is not living. I am talking about von Neumann probes. Von Neumann probes are named after John von Neumann, one of the most prolific polymaths of last century. A von Neumann probe is an ingenious solution for fast space exploration. A von Neumann probe is a spacecraft that is loaded with an algorithm for self-replication. When it reaches a suitable celestial body, it will mine the required raw materials and build a copy of itself, complete with the algorithm for self-replication. The new spacecraft will then proceed to explore the space in a different direction. The self-replication process continues with every copy in an exponential manner. You may like this post about John von Neumann.

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was The Illegitimate Sensei:

[1] An Introduction to Cybernetics – Ross Ashby

[2] Second-order cybernetics: an historical introduction – Bernard Scott

[3] Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living – Francisco Varela and Humberto Maturana

[4] The Cognitive Theories of Maturana and Varela – John Mingers

[5] Maturana, Luhmann, and Self-Referential Government – John H Little

[6] Organizations as Learning Systems – Marjatta Maula

[7] Implications of The Theory Of Autopoiesis For The Discipline And Practice Of Information Systems – Ian Beeson

Exploring The Ashby Space:

Ashby4

Today’s post is a follow-up to an earlier post, Solving a Lean Problem versus a Six Sigma Problem:

In today’s post, I am looking at “The Ashby Space.” The post is based on the works of Ross Ashby, Max Boisot, Bill McKelvey and Karl Weick. Ross Ashby was a prominent cybernetician who is famous for his “Law of Requisite Variety.” The Law of Requisite Variety can be stated as “Only variety can destroy/absorb variety.” Ashby defined variety as the number of distinguishable states of a system. Stafford Beer used variety as a measure of complexity. The more variety a system has the more complex it is. An important concept to grasp with this idea is that the number of distinguishable states (and thus variety) depends upon the ability of the observer. In this regard, variety of a system may be viewed as dependent on the observer.

Max Boisot and Bill McKelvey expanded upon the Law of Requisite Variety and stated that only complexity can destroy complexity. In other words, only internal complexity can destroy external complexity. If the regulatory agency of a system does not have the requisite variety to match the variety of its environment, it will not be able to adapt and survive. Ashby explained this using the example of a fencer:

If a fencer faces an opponent who has various modes of attack available, the fencer must be provided with at least an equal number of modes of defense if the outcome is to have the single value: attacked parried.

Boisot and McKelvey restated Ashby’s law as – the range of responses that a living system must be able to marshal in its attempt to adapt to the world must match the range of situations—threats and opportunities—that it confronts. They explained this further using the graphical depiction they termed as “the Ashby Space.” The Ashby Space has two axes, the horizontal axis represents the Variety of Responses, and the vertical axis represents the Variety of Stimuli. Ashby’s law can be represented by the 45˚ diagonal line. The diagonal line represents the requisite variety where the stimuli variety matches the response variety. To adapt and survive we should be in on the diagonal line or below. If we are above the diagonal line, the external variety surpasses the internal variety needed and we perish. Using Ashby’s fencer example, the fencer is able to defend against the opponent only if his defense variety matches or exceeds that of the opponent’s offense variety. This is shown below.

Ashby1

Boisot and McKelvey also depicted the Ordered, Complex and Chaotic regimes in the Ashby space. In the ordered regime, the cause-effect relationships are distinguishable and generally has low variety. The complex regime has a higher variety of stimuli present and requires a higher variety of responses. The cause-effect relationships are non-linear and may make sense only in hindsight. The chaotic regime has the most variety of stimuli. This is depicted in the schematic below. Although the three regimes may appear equally sized in the schematic, this is just for representational purposes.

Ashby2

The next idea that we will explore on the Ashby Space is the idea of the Adaptive Frontier. Ashby proposed a strong need for reducing the amount of variety from the external environment. He viewed this as the role of regulation. Ashby pointed out that the amount of regulation that can be achieved is limited by the amount of information that can be transmitted and processed by the system. This idea is depicted by the Adaptive Frontier curve. Any variety that lies outside this curve is outside the “adaptation budget” of the system. The system does not have the resources nor capacity to process all the variety that is coming in, and does not have the capacity to allocate resources to choose appropriate responses. The adaptive frontier is shown in the schematic below as the red dotted curve.

Ashby3

Combining all the ideas above, the Ashby Space can be depicted as below.

Ashby Space

Boisot and McKelvey detail three types of responses that a living system might follow in the presence of external stimuli. Consider the schematic below, where the agent is located at “Q” in the Ashby Space, which refers to the stimuli variety, X.

  1. The Behaviorist – This is also referred to as the “headless chicken response”. When presented with the stimuli variety, X, the agent will pursue the headless chicken response of trying to match the high variety in a haphazard fashion and soon finds himself outside the adaptive frontier and perishes. The agent fails to filter out any unwanted stimuli and fails to process meaningful information out of the incoming data.
  2. The Routinizer – The routinizer interprets the incoming stimuli as “seen it all before.” They will filter out too much of the incoming data and fail to recognize patterns or mis-categorize them. The routinizer is using the schema which they already have, and their success lies in how well their schema matches the real-world variety-reducing regularities confronting the agent.
  3. The Strategist – An intelligent agent has to correctly interpret the data first, and extract valid information about relevant regularities from the incoming stimuli. The agent then has to use existing schema and match against existing patterns. If the patterns do not match, the agent will have to develop new patterns. As you go up in the Ashby space, the complexity increases, and as you go down, the complexity decreases. The schemas should have the required complexity to match the incoming stimuli. The agent should also be aware of the adaptive frontier and stay within the resource budget constraints. The strategist will try to filter out noise, use/develop appropriate schemas and generate effectively complex responses.

Ashby4

Final Words:

The Ashby Space is a great representation to keep in mind while coping with complexity. The ability of a system to discern what is meaningful and what is noise depends on the system’s past experiences, world views, biases and what its construes as morals and values. Boisot and McKelvey note that:

Not everything in a living system’s environment is relevant or meaningful for it, however. If it is not to waste its energy responding to every will-o-the wisp, a system must distinguish schema based on meaningful information (signals about real-world regularities judged important) from noise (meaningless signals). Note that what constitutes information or noise for a system is partly a function of the organism’s own expectations, judgments, and sensory abilities about what is important —as well as of its motivations— and hence, of its models of the world. Valid and timely representations (schema) economize on the organism’s scarce energy resources.

This also points to the role of sensemaking. As Karl Weick notes, “an increase in complexity can increase perceived uncertainty… Complexity affects what people notice and ignore… The variety in a firm’s repertory of beliefs should affect the amount of time it spends consciously struggling to make sense. The greater the variety of beliefs in a repertoire, the more fully should any situation be seen, the more solutions identified, and the more likely it should be that someone knows a great deal about what is happening.”

The models or representations we construct to represent a phenomenon do not have to be as complex as the phenomenon itself, just like the usefulness of a map is in its abstraction. If the map was as complex as the city it represented, it would become identical to city, with the roads, buildings etc., an exact replica. The system however should have the requisite variety. The system should be able to filter out unwanted variety and amplify its meaningful variety to achieve this. The agent must wait for “meaningful” patterns to emerge, and keep learning.

The agent must also be aware to not claim victory or “Mission Accomplished” when dealing with complexity. Some portion of the stimuli variety may be met with the existing schema as part of routinizing. However, this does not mean that the requisite variety has been achieved. A broken clock is able to tell time correctly twice a day, but it does not mean that you should assume that the clock is functional.

I will finish off with a great insight from Max Boisot:

Note that we do not necessarily require an exact match between the complexity of the environment and the complexity of the system. Afterall, the complexity of the environment might turn out to be either irrelevant to the survival of the system or amenable to important simplifications. Here, the distinction between complexity as subjectively experienced and complexity as objectively given is useful. For it is only where complexity is in fact refractory to cognitive efforts at interpretation and structuring that it will resist simplification and have to be dealt with on its own terms. In short, only where complexity and variety cannot be meaningfully reduced do they have to be absorbed. So an interesting way of reformulating the issue that we shall be dealing with in this article is to ask whether the increase in complexity that confronts firms today has not, in effect, become irreducible or “algorithmically incompressible”? And if it has, what are the implications for the way that firms strategize?

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Nietzsche’s Overman at the Gemba:

I welcome the reader to read further upon the ideas of Ross Ashby. Some of the references I used are:

  1. An Introduction to Cybernetics, Ross Ashby (1957)
  2. Requisite variety and its implications for the control of complex systems, Cybernetica 1:2, p. 83-99, Ross Ashby (1958)
  3. Complexity and Organization–Environment Relations: Revisiting Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety, Max Boisot and Bill McKelvey (2011)
  4. Knowledge, Organization, and Management. Building on the Work of Max Boisot, Edited by John Child and Martin Ihrig (2013)
  5. Connectivity, Extremes, and Adaptation: A Power-Law Perspective of Organizational Effectiveness, Max Boisot and Bill McKelvey (2011)
  6. Counter-Terrorism as Neighborhood Watch: A Socio/Computational Approach for Getting Patterns from Dots, Max Boisot and Bill McKelvey (2004)
  7. Sensemaking in Organizations (Foundations for Organizational Science), Karl Weick (1995)

Nietzsche’s Overman at the Gemba:

Overman

In today’s post, I am looking at Nietzsche’s philosophy of Übermensch. Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche is probably one of the most misunderstood and misquoted philosophers. The idea of Übermensch is sometimes mistranslated as Superman. A better translation is “Overman”. The German term “mensch” means “human being” and is gender neutral. Nietzsche spoke about overman first in his book, “Thus Spoke Zarathustra.” In the prologue of this book, Nietzsche through Zarathustra asks:

I teach you the overman. Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?

Nietzsche provides further clarification that, “Man is a rope, fastened between animal and Übermensch – a rope over an abyss.Übermensch is an idea that represents a being who has overcome himself and his human nature – one who can break away from the bondage of ideals and create new ones in place of the old stale ones.

Nietzsche came to the conclusion that humanity was getting stale by maintaining status quo through adhering to ideals based in the past. He also realized that the developments in science and technology, and the increase in collective intelligence was disrupting the “old” dogmatic ideals and the end result was going to be nihilism – a post-modern view that life is without meaning or purpose. Nietzsche famously exclaimed that; God is dead! He was not rejoicing in that epiphany. Nietzsche proposed the idea of Übermensch as a solution to this nihilistic crisis. Übermensch is not based on a divine realm. Instead Übermensch is a higher form on Earth. Overcoming the status quo and internal struggles with the ideals is how we can live our full potential in this earth and be Übermensch.

Nietzsche contrasted Übermensch with “Last Man”. The last man embraces status quo and lives in his/her comfort zone. The last man stays away from any struggle, internal or external. The last man goes with the flow as part of a herd. The last man never progresses, but stays where he is, clutching to the past.

Nietzsche used the metaphors of the camel, the lion and the child to detail the progress towards becoming an Übermensch. As the camel, we should seek out struggle, to gain knowledge and wisdom through experience. We should practice self-discipline and accept more duties to improve ourselves. As the lion, we should seek our independence from the ideals and dogmas. Nietzsche spoke of tackling the “Thou Shalt” dragon as the lion. The dragon has a thousand scales with the notation, “thou shalt”. Each scale represents a command, telling us to do something or not do something. As the lion, we should strongly say, “No.” Finally, as the child, we are free. Free to create a new reality and new values.

At the Gemba:

Several thoughts related to Übermensch  and Lean came to my mind. Toyota teaches us that we should always strive toward True North, our ideal state. We are never there, but we should always continue to improve and move towards True North. Complacency/the push to maintain status quo is the opposite of kaizen, as I noted in an earlier post.

I am reminded of a press article about Fujio Cho. In 2002, when Fujio Cho was the President of Toyota Motor Corporation, Toyota became the third largest automaker in the world and had 10.2% of share of world market. Cho unveiled a plan to be world’s largest automaker with 15% global market share. Akio Matsubara, Toyota’s managing director in charge of the corporate planning division, stated:

“The figure of 15 percent is a vision, not a target,” he said. “Now that we’ve achieved 10 percent, we want to bring 15 percent into view as our next dream. We don’t see any significance in becoming No. 1.”

The point of the 15 percent figure, he said, is to motivate Toyota employees to embrace changes to improve so they would not become complacent with the company’s success.

My favorite part of the article was Morgan Stanley Japan Ltd. auto analyst Noriaki Hirakata’s remarks about Fujio Cho. Toyota’s executives, he said, believe Toyota is “the best in the world, but they don’t want to be satisfied.”

It’s as if Cho’s motto has become “Beat Toyota,” Hirakata said.

I am also reminded of a story that the famous American Systems Thinker, Russel Ackoff shared. In 1951, he went to Bell Labs in Murray Hill, New Jersey, as a consultant. While he was there, all the managers were summoned to an impromptu urgent meeting by the Vice President of Bell Labs. Nobody was sure what was going on. Everyone gathered in a room anxious to hear what the meeting was about. The Vice President walked in about 10 minutes late and looked very upset. He walked up to the podium and everyone became silent. The Vice President announced:

“Gentlemen, the telephone system of the United States was destroyed last night.”

He waited as everyone started talking and whispering that it was not true. The Vice President continued:

“The telephone system was destroyed last night and you had better believe it. If you don’t by noon, you are fired.”

The room was silent again. The Vice President then started out laughing, and everyone relaxed.

“What was that all about? Well, in the last issue of the Scientific American,” he said, “there was an article that said that these laboratories are the best industrially based scientific laboratories in the world. I agreed, but it got me thinking.”

The Vice President went to on to state that all of the notable inventions that Bell Lab had were invented prior to 1900. This included the dial, multiplexing, and coaxial cable. All these inventions were made prior to when any of the attendees were born. The Vice President pointed out that they were being complacent. They were treating the parts separately and not improving the system as a whole. His solution to the complacency? He challenged the team to assume that the telephone system was destroyed last night, and that they were going to reinvent and rebuilt it from scratch! One of the results of this was the push button style phones that reduced the time needed to dial a number by 12 seconds. This story reminds me of breaking down the existing ideals and challenging the currently held assumptions.

Nietzsche challenges us to overcome the routine monotonous ideas and beliefs. Instead of simply existing, going from one day to the next, we should challenge ourselves to be courageous and overcome our current selves. This includes destruction and construction of ideals and beliefs. We should be courageous to accept the internal struggle, when we go outside our comfort zone. The path to our better selves is not inside the comfort zone.

Similar to what Toyota did by challenging the prevalent mass production system and inventing a new style of production system, we should also challenge the currently held belief system. We should continue evolving toward our better selves. As Nietzsche said:

What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end.

I say unto you: One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Solving a Lean Problem versus a Six Sigma Problem: