Nature, Measurement, Purpose and Learning

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From the Society for Organizational Learning, Assessment for Learning Research Initiative, First Research Forum - January 14-16, 1998

In Three Parts: Part Two

Preface by John Veitch

As Prof. Johnson continues to talk about how to better manage a company by using more natural systems, he struggles to find the right words and to keep the discussion clear.  This is something I recognise in myself and others.  Often you need to say things and get feedback on them before you can clarify your own view.  To have someone with whom one can discuss new ideas is a luxury we all need.  I note that W. Edwards Deming said that we should "Eliminate numerical quotas." This seems to agree entirely with the position H. Thomas Johnson takes.

by H. Thomas Johnson


Nature and Measurement

Ed Deming used say that 97% of what matters in an organization can't be measured.  Only maybe 3% can be measured.  But when you go into most organizations and look at what people are doing, they're spending all their time focusing on what they can measure and none of their time on what really matters--what they can't measure.  Why would we do this?  We're spending all of our time measuring what doesn't matter.  In fact, its part of avoiding a lot of the really difficult and important issues, like virtue, as Bill O'Brien has pointed out (see "Nine Frustrations of a CEO", Society for Organisational Learning Assessment Initiative Working Paper).  We spend almost none of our time on what really matters. 

So I asked myself, why do we measure?  Why are we doing this thing that we are talking about here today under the heading of "assessing learning?"

When I think about it historically, I realize that in the context of business the kind of measurement we're talking about really is a 20th Century phenomenon.

Let me say, measurement can be two things.  You can use measurement to describe and, in that sense, Aristotle was a measurer, too.  Aristotle could have said, "well, one candle is brighter than the other."   No problem with that.  One shade of red is brighter than another, or one person is bigger than another, or one thing's heavier than another.  But with Galileo, we started down a different road, the road of quantification.  When we quantify, we are separating things that in nature are inherently combined.  And in so doing we take apart and change that which is natural.  That's what Aristotle didn't do; that's where Galileo started taking us. 

Over time, we got very good at measurement and quantification.  It leads to steam engines, internal combustion, high-rise buildings with central heating, eating a good meal provided from farms many thousands of miles away, and so forth.  It leads, over time, to the creation of the entire mechanical world we human beings have produced in our global economic system. 

There is no such thing in nature as a mechanical thing.  Nature doesn't mechanize.  Nature naturalizes. 

In contrast to mechanical systems, absent the human mind and absent the human mind's busyness with measurement, nature doesn't measure.  This is another of the points Bateson made, 50 years ago.  Nature doesn't measure, nature doesn't quantify.  Nature deals only with "patterns which connect."   Nature focuses on the patterns.  It's patterns and relationships and connections that create the reality of nature.  Galileo wanted to escape that, and so he did.  He got us on the track where we are today.  In escaping patterns and relationships, we mechanized.  (JV.  Created dead systems)

But what we have done to achieve mechanization--particularly in our lifetimes, in this century -- is an incredible job of destroying nature.  We have destroyed nature as a result of this mechanistic thinking and the mechanistic activity that follows from it.  Particularly in the engineering realm and the scientific realm -- we all know about that story. 

Means and Ends

Measurement in many ways brought us to this point where we can no longer understand or even appreciate or even want to deal with nature.  We've torn apart the living system, the means to achieve our consciously-contrived ends, in pursuit of what Bateson called "conscious purpose."   We've done that so well that now we're happy with our ends, we're comfortable with them.  We've created a physical, engineered realm, destroying nature, and we don't want to talk about nature anymore.  We don't even want to think about it for the most part. 

In the process of applying measurement to organizations, we do the same thing we did in the so-called "physical world."   We destroy what's natural.  The process of measuring destroys what is natural.  It has to.  It's an inherent characteristic of measurement.  Measurement takes what's inherently interdependent, and shaped by patterns of mutual causality in nature, and turns it into something that's inherently independent and shaped by patterns of lineal causality.  In creating systems whose operation can be described with quantity, we create what is mechanical.  Measurement mechanizes, and mechanizing is diametrically opposed to the natural. 

Another way to put this is to say that in the process of destroying the natural, what we've done is pervert ends and means.  Nature, in a sense, is just the endless unfolding of means.  However, the unfolding occurs according to definite patterns.  The outcomes, in specific detail, are random, but the patterns driving the process are not.  Nature doesn't care about the ends, they just happen.  But the means is very much what nature is concerned about. 

But as humans we decided that we're not happy with nature's ends.  We think we can do a better job; and we do it by perverting the means.  Measurement is one of the principal tools through which we do it.  We've become very good at it.  We've shattered the means; we've changed them, we've manipulated them.  Deming used words like 'tampering', to characterize how we try to manipulate without understanding.  We do this because the ends are what are important to us.  They're what we regard as the permanent thing.  Whereas in nature the means are the permanent thing.  We consider the means ephemeral, throw them away, forget them.  The means -- do whatever you want with them.  The ends are what's important, the goal itself, what you measure for.  We want what we can get. 

As an aside, I am coming to believe that a lot of our deepest frustrations in contemporary society come from a deep sense of what's been lost in this process.  People increasingly sense anxiety and pain at having lost the natural.  Most of us can't even articulate it, but we've got a gut sense of it. 

I come back to my question, "Why do we measure anyway?" What is it?  What have we been doing to ourselves in exercising this talent, this power, and this capacity?  We've got a long history now to reflect upon.  We can talk about what we've done in the physical realm, in science and engineering, in the technological realm.  What we're doing in the business realm today is no different.  We're seeing it work out there, and the inevitable consequences follow.  We've mechanized everything around us by quantifying. 

My feeling is, that somehow, we've got to go back and talk about what it might be like to revisit the means, as a thing in itself.  It's for us to put ourselves in harmony with nature's pattern, somehow.  And the ends will take care of themselves.  The results will be sufficient unto the day.  That's a leap that we're afraid of.  It scares us to death. 

But it is possible.  I spoke earlier of Toyota.  I have had the privilege of coming close to this way of thinking about a business, in Toyota.  Finally, after years and years of walking the floors in that company and, on a few occasions, working on the line, I come to this simple idea (expressed once by Joanna Macy).  The means are the ends in the making.  That's all there is.  Get the means right and the ends will take care of themselves. 

That's why Toyota, despite having an excellent accounting system that allows them to comply with regulatory authorities and so on, actually has no standard cost accounting system in the sense of other manufacturers.  They don't drive operations with the numbers.  They don't measure for this purpose, for the purpose of motivating action.  They follow a different logic, a deeper logic.  They measure only to enhance awareness of how the work is flowing. 

Science and Measurement in the 21st Century

While nature does not quantify, nature does count.  You'll see lots of things in nature in twos -- two eyes and two ears, the bilateral symmetry of our bodies, of the bodies of all mammals, and for that matter of much of life.  Nature likes to work with twos, a lot: yin and yang, sexual reproduction, black and white, positive and negative.  That, to me, is one of the most profound expressions of what Blake called the "twofold."   An example of this is seen in Goethe's conclusions about color, which were quite different from Newton's.  Goethe thought Newton drew the wrong conclusions from his experiments with prisms.  He showed that color was not a quantitative abstraction explained by wave lengths.  He showed that the intersection of dark and light is the real origin of the colors cast on the wall by the prism.  His theories are now being resurrected by Henri Bortoff, a former colleague and protégé of David Bohm's.  (Bortoff, The Wholeness of Nature (Lindisfarne Press, 1996). 

Goethian science is, I think, the one that must shape our perception of reality in the 21st century.  In the 21st century, Newtonian science must no longer shape our worldview, if we are to survive as a species.  Goethe's science is the science of twofolds, the science of twos. 

So, number is there in nature.  But so also is ratio, which is dividing numbers. 

Working with Anders Bröms in Sweden, I found he had come up with something quite similar to analyze costs.  He and his colleagues make extensive use of ratio indexes.  They're very sophisticated mathematical constructions, as only Swedish engineers working 20 years on these things might come up with.  He's got these beautiful pictures he can show you from clients.  They tell the years when they were doing well, and the years they were doing badly, which client is doing better than another, and so forth.  He does not use traditional cost information to do this.  What he's developed are structural indexes that are made up of ratios.  In a sense these are inequalities, based on the same principle as inequality indexes, like the Italian sociologist Vilfredo Pareto first started to use.  But, with very sophisticated thinking behind these very simple ratio numbers, he can tell rich stories about a company's performance without ever resorting to numbers from the accounting system.  He can also tell where their advantages are, in terms of design engineering or operational management.  This has been applied with great success at Scania, and we're hoping to use it to explain better what Toyota is doing. 

So when I say I'm not in favor of measuring or quantifying anymore, you understand I don't discard numbers, I don't discard ratios.  There are descriptors that we can come up with that can help us see patterns.  These will tell us whether one group is making it and one isn't.  I think we can come up with some assessments and evaluations in answer to the issues here at this conference, in this research initiative. 

We are very much at the beginning here.  We're just seeing a very, very small tip of an iceberg out here.  I'm not explaining it at all in detail here.  I hope that the book Anders and I are writing now will help take this a bit further.  It will be the first public airing of some of these views. 

How Will We Know We Are Learning?

Answering the question "how do you know," is crucial.  That was the question Deming wrestled with.  People would talk about performance in terms of number and he would ask, "How do you know?"  How can you possibly assess things with the minuscule little elements you're looking at here?  How do you know?

In the end, I think the question, "How do we know we are learning?" can be addressed in terms of "Are we undoing the mechanical?"  And "are we establishing and fulfilling the natural?"  If we assess what we're doing in terms of how far we are progressing towards understanding and embodying how nature works, we will see that real progress is possible. 

This gets to Bateson's idea -- are we undoing the way man thinks?  Are we putting in its place a deeper appreciation of the way nature works?  That's how we'll know we're learning.  We've got to come to an understanding of what that means.  We'll see it, and as we see it, we will find a reconnecting of the fragmented state of the world. 

In the end, can we get an idea of what this might be like?  I go back to Scania and a Swedish experience I had.  Scania is a company owned by the Wallenberg family, a wealthy family that owns much of Swedish industry.  The parent company, which goes by the name Investor, has held all kinds of companies, like Scania, for many years.  Investor has always been run by a member of the Wallenberg family, up until this past year. 

One of the great leaders of the family in the post-World War II period, Marcus Wallenberg, was very close to his companies.  He regularly would go visit all the companies.  He was not a person who sat above the clouds and studied his companies by looking at spreadsheets.  He went down to the companies, like Scania, and when he did he invariably visited the shop floor.  You can imagine, this is not the chairman of a board, this is the chairman of the chairmen of many boards.  He would go down in the shop, where he would talk with workers and engineers.  I believe he was trained as an engineer, so he understood what he was looking at.  Someone asked him once, "How do you know, when you go into a shop, what to look for?  What is it that tells you when things are right?" And he said, "I go into the shop, because that's where what matters takes place.  And when I go there I listen for the music."  That was his expression."  I listen for the music.  And if I hear the music I know everything's all right.  But if I don't hear it, then we go to work."  

I think that, in a way, is what it is -- "listening for the music."   Finding patterns, seeking them out.  If you see them, then you know everything is all right.  Maybe numbers or ratios, to some extent, can help us.  But we will know, as well, when we're not hearing the music, when it's discordant, when it's disharmonious. 

I think 20, 30, 40 years down the road, we must think this way and work this way.  Then, in terms of my "travelling upstream" metaphor, we'll be somewhere north of Minneapolis (referring again to the Mississippi river), pretty close to the source of the river, with a very different approach to managing businesses than we've grown up with in our lifetimes. 

I'm reminded that when you follow rivers upstream back home in the Cascade Mountains, to the extent that you can really find a river's source in mountains like that, you often get to the point where you realize that even when you've reached the river's source, you still haven't found the ultimate source.  That realization comes when you look up, and see a cloud covering the mountain's peak.  That's where the river is coming from.  It's coming from the clouds, and in the clouds from the water that evaporated at the mouth of the river, where the journey began.  You find, as T.  S.  Eliot said, "the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time."