Monday, 23 April 2012

Gennchi genbutsu...Go and see

One of the people that I follow on Twitter @orgsci tweeted Genchi Genbutsu....go see, to understand.  So I did and discovered that this is a concept from Lean Thinking.  I liked its clear direction to just 'go and see' and it captures succinctly my interest in using workplace action to inform management learning.
I also found this distinction between Western and Eastern learning ideologies, which is relevant to this post.  To quote from Pete Abilla's shmula blog:

In Lean Thinking, “Go and See” is more of a management mindset than a technique or tool applied. To contrast, here are two approaches to learning about and solving problems (these are general comments):
  • In the West: problems are learned about and solved in a conference room or in a boardroom; there is distance. Decisions are made from a powerpoint presentation and excel spreadsheets.
  • In the East: problems are learned about and solved where it actually happens; in manufacturing, fulfillment and distribution, and like occupations – that means on the factory or shop floor.

In their article in Organization Science (1991: 2 (1): 40-57), ‘Organizational learning and communities of practice: toward a unified view of working, learning and innovation’, John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid said:

Most conventional learning theory, including that implicit in most training courses, tends to endorse the valuation of abstract knowledge over actual practice and as a result to separate learning from working and, more significantly, learners from workers.
I think 'going and seeing' should be part of management learning practice.  We should ask managers to observe their practice and use the classroom as a reflective space.

There are three pedagogical reasons for this (with acknowledgement to the work of Professor Robert Chia).

1. The imperative to stay with the ambivalence and ambiguity of the not-yet-known

Managers have to act into the not-yet-known.  Models and theories might well provide some pointers but they also create the illusion that management practice can somehow be contained within a simplistic 2x2 matrix or a Venn diagram of overlapping circles.  If management practice is ambiguious then Management Learning practice should reflect the same challenges.  It should be a critical and reflexive form of inquiry that is focused on observed practices as they emerge and not limited to a diet of models that dulls the inquiry process and separates learning from working.   
2. How a situation emerges crucially shapes its meaning, interpretation and significance

In the course of their work, managers develop strategies, create visions, make statements about values and required behaviours and organise work.  But they do so as active members rather than separate from the systems they are trying to influence, and so, unlike a machine, human responses cannot be pre-programmed.  What happens is that when managers act people create their own meaning, interpretation and significance from what has been said or done.  Managers in turn have to respond to the responses and so the situation branches in many possible directions that cannot be predicted in advance. The alternative would only be possible if people really did respond like automatons to managerial direction.

3.  The significance and importance of experimental action as a means of surprising ourselves and, therefore, breaking new ground in our self-understanding.

We already know from research that at least 80% of  management knowledge comes from experience.  If we accept this as being valid, then it must also change the way in which management learning is practiced.  Formal programmes should, as minimum, be redesigned or possibly even replaced by approaches that place experimentation and action at the centre of how learning is done.  This would require the learner to experience the challenge of making and formulating their own inquiries from which they would break new ground in self-understanding. 


'Go and see' feels like a direct and practical way of expressing something rather important about managerial practice. My expectation is that this approach would enable managers to generate valuable workplace knowledge that is focused on performance rather than theory.  What surprises me is its absence from current learning practice.  Perhaps the forces of tradition and inertia perpetuate the status quo? 

I'm working on approaches that would integrate observational practice with more traditional management learning.  Part of what I'm considering is how best to get managers to do this well so that they can collect data of interest.

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