The Best Attribute to Have at the Gemba:

blindmen and elephant

Recently, I was playing around with the question – what is the best attribute to have at the gemba? At first, I thought that perhaps it could be creativity. I soon realized that this is like Superman, a superhero with all of the answers. This does not align with the idea of the people system or the thinking production system – generating ideas bottom-up. Then I thought, perhaps the best attribute to have at the gemba is the ability to listen. I felt that I was on the right track with this thought. I soon came to the realization that the best attribute to have at the gemba is “Anekantvada”.  Anekantvada is a Sanskrit word that translates as “many + ends + -ness” or “many sidedness”. This idea comes from one of the ancient religions from India called Jainism. Jainism is also famous for its other contribution – Ahimsa or non-violence. We can view anekantvada as cognitive ahimsa – in other words, not being violent or hostile to others’ ideas. The main idea of anekantvada is that Reality lies outside of your mind. What you have inside your mind is your perspective or your own version of a narrative regarding the reality outside. Thus, your perspective is a poorly translated and limited copy of the reality outside and your understanding of the reality is incomplete. Anekantvada requires you to look at multiple perspectives from other people to truly understand reality, as one perspective alone is incomplete. All knowledge is contextual. We cannot separate the object and the viewer, when we are creating knowledge about something. This means that if there is more than one viewer, the knowledge created will be different.

The story of the blind men and the elephant is a very common story that explains the different perspectives of reality. The story originated with Jainism to explain anekantvada. In the Jain version of the story, there were six blind men who came to “see” the elephant, and each person felt one part of the elephant and described the elephant from his perspective. Each perspective was different because each person felt a different part of the elephant. One person felt the ear and said that the elephant was like a fan, while another felt the tail and said that the elephant was like a rope. The king happened to be there at that time, and listened to the blind men fighting on who was correct. The king told them that while each of them was partially correct, when taken one perspective at a time the truth was incomplete.

From the Jain philosophy, reality and thus the truth itself is complex and always has multiple aspects. Even if you can experience reality, you cannot express the reality completely. The best we can do is like one of the blind men – give our version, a partial expression of truth. In Jain philosophy, this idea can be explained by “Syadvada”. The root word “Syad” can be translated as “perhaps”. Using this approach, we can express anekantavada by adding “perhaps” in front of our expression of reality. An example would be to say – “perhaps the dress is blue and black”.


The two quotations below add more depth to what we have discussed so far:

“To deny the coexistence of the mutually conflicting viewpoints about a thing would mean to deny the true nature of reality.” – Acharang Sutra

“The water from Ocean contained in a pot can neither be called an ocean or a non-ocean, but simply a part of the ocean. Similarly, a doctrine, though arising from absolute truth can neither be called a whole truth or a non-truth.” – Tattvarthaslokavartikka.

The idea of anekantvada requires you to respect others’ ideas. It also makes you realize that your version of reality is incomplete. Thus, when you are at the gemba telling others what to do, you are not open to others’ viewpoints. You are going with your version of the story –  it should be easy to do this, the way I tell you. Anekantvada brings a new layer of meaning to Respect for People, one of the two pillars of the Toyota Way. Take the example of Standard Work – Do you create it in vacuum and ask the operators to follow it? When there is a problem on the floor, do you figure out what happened and then require the operators to follow your one “true” way?

All knowledge, judgment and decisions we make depends upon the context of the reality, and it may make sense only when viewed in that context. Why did the operator omit step 2 of the work instructions that led to all of these rejects? This reminds me of the principle of Local Rationality, an idea that I got from Sidney Dekker [1]. Local Rationality refers to the idea that people do what make the most sense to them, at any given time. This decision may have led to some disaster, but the operator(s) did what made sense to them at that time. When you look at things this way, you start to view it from the operator’s standpoint, and finally may be able to understand what happened from a different perspective.

I will finish with a story about context:

Two students came to study under the master. They were both fond of smoking. The first day itself, the first student went to the teacher and asked whether he could smoke when he was meditating. The teacher told him that he could not do that.

Feeling sad, the first student went outside to meditate under the tree. There he saw the second student under a tree smoking. The first student asked him, “Why are you smoking? Don’t you know that our teacher does not like it when you smoke and meditate?”

The second student responded that he had asked the teacher and the teacher said that he could smoke.

The first student was confused and asked the second student, what exactly did he ask the teacher.

The second student said, “I asked him if I can meditate when I smoke.”

The first student replied, “That makes sense. I asked him if I can smoke when I meditated.”

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was The Socratic Method:



Kenjutsu, Ohno and Polanyi:


Taiichi Ohno, the father of Toyota Production System, has a way with his words. I was rereading his great book, “Toyota Production System – Beyond Large-Scale Production”, and I came across the section where he talked about “In an art form, action is requried.” [1]

In the section Ohno talked about the progression of swordsmanship from “gekken”, to “kenjutsu” to “kendo”. Ohno wrote that during the era of brute force fighting, “gekken” was about having the strongest swordsman winning over the weaker opponent. As time progressed, it was recognized that there is a structure to the swordsmanship, and “kenjustu” was developed. Kenjutsu is translated as “art of sword”. With this, a weaker opponent could strike down the physically stronger opponent. As time went on, there was no longer a need to carry sword around, and “kendo” was developed in its place. Kendo means “the way of the sword”. The etymology is similar to “judo” which means “the gentle way”. The “-do” stands for “the way of”. “Ken” stands for “sword”. Thus, kendo stands for “the way of the sword”. Kendo utilizes a bamboo sword called a “shinai”. Kendo is a martial art and has become very well known in Japan and outside Japan.

Ohno went on to state that he believed that swordsmanship advanced the most during the era of kenjustsu. The “jutsu” part stands for “the art of”. Ohno points out that “jutsu” is created by inserting the character “require” into the character “action”. Thus, kenjutsu advanced swordsmanship the most because it required action. Ohno continues to state that “real action is what counts”. Talking about technology and actually practicing it are two different things.

This is a great lesson from Ohno and I was reminded of tacit knowledge when he talked about “requiring action”. Tacit knowledge is the brain child of Michael Polanyi, a Hungarian-British polymath [2]. Tacit knowledge may be loosely described as the knowledge that is hard to codify and part of which cannot be codified. Polanyi stated that “we know more than we can tell”. “Tacit knowledge” is generally contrasted against “Explicit knowledge”. Explicit knowledge is the knowledge that is present in the codified form like written procedures, manuals etc. However, it is wrong to state that Tacit and Explicit knowledge are mutually exclusive and that all Tacit knowledge can be transformed to Explicit knowledge.

Polanyi believed that all knowledge is either tacit or rooted in tacit knowledge, including explicit knowledge. In Polanyi’s words;

                “While tacit knowledge can be possessed by itself, explicit knowledge must rely on being tacitly understood and applied. Hence all knowledge is either tacit or rooted in tacit knowledge. A wholly explicit knowledge is unthinkable.”

While it might be possible to codify some parts of tacit knowledge, not all tacit knowledge can be codified. Some of the examples that Polanyi gave were riding a bicycle and facial recognition. It is not easy to explain in written form how to ride a bicycle or how to recognize a person through facial recognition. With the advancement in Machine Learning, both these activities can now be performed by AI (Artificial Intelligence). However, even the AI has to perform the action and learn from errors to be somewhat successful in it. The tacit portion of the knowledge still requires action. One of the ways to teach facial recognition to AI is to give a large amount of pictures with proper identification to allow the AI to learn from the correct data first. Based on this, the AI will start performing facial recognition tasks, and every wrong answer gets corrected which adds to the learning. Once the supervised learning is complete, a new dataset with unidentified pictures are given, and the accuracy rate determined. Every attempt at recognizing a picture is a lesson that reinforces the facial recognition knowledge.

Polanyi’s theory of knowledge was based on his objections against the prevalent “objectivism” in the scientific method. Objectivism is the belief that all knowledge is posteriori (after the fact) and is derived only based on the perception of the results with senses. Thus, the knowledge is based on quantitative measures using only perception. Polanyi’s objection to this was objectivism ignored the role of the observer or the experimenter. Polanyi thought that discovery must be arrived at by the tacit powers of the mind and its content. The role of the knower is very important in the formation of knowledge. Polanyi’s ideas of tacit knowing were derived from Gestalt psychology and the part-whole perception model which requires coherence between focal and subsidiary awareness. A face is able to be recognized because of all the particularities of the face (relative position of nose, lips, eyes etc, size of the eyes, color of the eyes etc.) combined into a coherent image through subsidiary and focal awareness. There is lot more to tacit knowledge that cannot be contained in this post. I encourage the readers to read upon Michael Polanyi for more. There is a lot more to tacit knowledge than what can be written down here (no pun intended).

The tacit knowledge can only be acquired by carefully observing the expert, and performing the functions under his or her watchful eyes. In other words, tacit knowledge requires action. Even the expert may not be aware of all parts of the tacit knowledge. The tacit knowledge can be acquired only through “close interaction and buildup of shared understanding and trust”. Polanyi has said that “all knowing is personal knowing”. Explicit knowledge can be stored in hardware (computer, books discs etc.) Explicit knowledge can be thus “transferred”. This is not possible for tacit knowledge. Some Knowledge Management practitioners have argued that all tacit knowledge can be transformed to explicit knowledge. An example is the SECI model by Nonaka and Takeuchi [3]. I do not believe this is possible since I believe that tacit knowledge can be acquired only through action and personal interaction with the experts.

I will finish off with a story I read from Harry Collins’ book, Tacit and Explicit Knowledge [4].

A guy walked into a pub that he has never been to before and sat down for a few drinks. He was puzzled by the action of the locals at the bar. Every now and then one of them would shout out a number and everybody would break out into laughter. This continued for a while, and the guy was very curious about it. He went to the pub owner and quizzed him about the strange actions. The pub owner explained to him that the locals have been coming here for so long and that they have been telling the same jokes over and over that they started assigning them numbers. So now, all they have to do is just call out the number and everybody would know the joke. Armed with this information, the new guy started calling out numbers and each time he was met with silence. The pub owner felt sorry for him, and explained to him “It’s not the joke my friend, it’s how you tell it.

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Shisa Kanko, a Different Kind of Checklist: