Back in December, I wrote a seasonal blog post entitled Epiphany to describe the exciting “aha moments” that sometimes accompany adult learning. Today’s post approaches the same topic from a slightly different perspective summed up by this short poem by Alexander Pope (1688 – 1744, a very old lean dude.)
“A little learning is a dangerous thing,
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.”
Many a manager has returned to work “intoxicated” from a one-day seminar on topic X, and carrying with him or her the passion of discovery, but not the depth of understanding. The outcome is epiphanitis, an overload of supposedly wonderful discoveries; too much work-in-process that can slow improvement down.
I’ve been guilty myself of inflicting my latest epiphanies on others: Automation intoxicated me in the 1970’s. The promise of IT was particularly alluring. As manager of IT in 1975, I led the implementation of our first MRP system. The promise of computerized network scheduling was compelling; but as we “drank largely” from the Pierian spring, we discovered a flawed and inflexible push production model. That tail continues to wag the dog in organizations large and small to this day.
Ten years later as the materials manager, an epiphany caused by reading The Goal, influenced an overzealous reduction in manufacturing batch sizes. Inspired by the book, I met Dr. Goldratt who declared that I should “cut the batches 86%”. I only cut them in half, but that was sufficient to create a nightmare for customer service. We “hit the rocks” from that epiphany and it took about nine months to recover. Fortunately, the crisis led me to Shigeo Shingo and TPS.
For years after that period, employees would grimace as I strolled into work with a stack of new books that I had gathered at conferences — not necessarily because the ideas I brought home were bad ideas (although sometimes they were), but because my enthusiasm led us too fast into untested waters; too often where resources were not available to try another experiment. “Oh, no. Bruce has been to another seminar,” they’d say half joking, “watch out.” Epiphanitis!
A colleague from a famous auto manufacturer related to me recently how American managers-in-training sometimes return to the US from Japan pumped up about a new idea but not really understanding it with any depth, and not necessarily relating it to the big picture. So I know my faux pas is not unique. (Perhaps I can call it a world-class faux pas).
There are two antidotes to epiphanitis:
First, new concepts and tools should be introduced to your organization at a time and rate that the organization is ready to receive. Pull, not push. As a change leader you need to understand that pulse. My friend Steve Spear uses the phrase “theory proven through practice” to describe the complete learning cycle, one that validates and clarifies our epiphanies. The theory is the explicit learning, something we observe or read about. The practice is the tacit learning we develop from applying the theory. Small experiments are wise. The more we practice, the deeper our understanding.
Second, it’s possible that your epiphany could turn out to be incorrect. When you feel the inspiration, test the information. The marketplace today is rife with productivity and quality improvement products, some of which may not deliver what they promise. These concepts and tools deserve the scrutiny of the scientific method – even if they are emotionally compelling. A little learning is a dangerous thing.