Experience Teaches Nothing

Experience Teaches Nothing

Experience Teaches Nothing

You’ve seen the situation – a manager makes the same mistakes over and over, an executive reads a book or article and decides to implement it at their organization. Why do they fail when they try to use their own or someone else’s experience? It’s because experience alone teaches nothing.

Dr. W. Edwards Deming said:

“Without theory, experience has no meaning. Without theory, one has no questions to ask. Hence, without theory, there is no learning… To copy an example of success without understanding it with the aid of theory, may lead to disaster.” (Deming, 2000, p. 103)

Your own experience teaches you nothing

Let’s start with the most depressing part first. We often don’t learn from our own experiences or we learn the wrong lessons from them. There are a lot of reasons for this (we seem to have a number of built-in cognitive biases) but they all might be reduced to one issue.

In Carl Sagan’s words, we are “significance junkies.” (Sagan, 1997, p. 367) We humans have an inflated idea of our own importance. We attribute things that happen around us to our actions, good or bad. We remember the things that confirm our beliefs and forget the things that don’t. In business, there are a lot of reasons why things vary from day to day, and only some of them have to do with whatever decision we just made.

For example, a stable process that you have given Bob to run is not meeting the specification, so you go out and yell at him. The process then starts performing back where it needs to be. What do you learn from this?

If you conclude that yelling at Bob caused him to run the process more efficiently, you will have learned the wrong lesson.

Who gave Bob that process that isn’t working? You did, and you need to look for a fault in the process before you assume that the people running it are responsible. Deming said, “Quality is determined by top management.” (Deming, 2000, p. 17) As a manager, it is your responsibility to provide a process that can do what the business needs it to do.

Let’s imagine such a process. The specification for this process is from 4 to 7.5 and it has been stable for a good while. Here is a histogram of what the process produces:


Before you went to yell at Bob, it produced a 3.6. You can see from the histogram that this is a not infrequent occurrence, a 3.6 or less would happen about 2.4% of the time just due to random chance. If we just left the process alone, what is most likely going to happen? Well, about 97.6% of the time it will be above 3.6, so it is quite likely to be higher if we forget to yell at Bob after all. More likely than not (about a 68% chance), it will be somewhere between 4.61 and 6.69 and look terrific. This is called “regression to the mean” and is responsible for many a sports bettor losing their money.

Maybe yelling at Bob actually made the process worse, but this negative effect was hidden by the regression back to the mean. Nevertheless, you have learned from your experience, (wrongly), that yelling at people works when in fact you and your yelling had nothing to do with the performance of the process.

Paraphrasing Hitoshi Kume (1987), experienced people have a lot of knowledge. The problem is that some of that knowledge is correct and some of it is incorrect, and they don’t know which is which.

The way to fight back against these natural tendencies is to use a framework based on some objective assessment to determine what is really happening. This is what Deming meant in the quote I started with. Part of the value of using data is that using data and analysis gives us a chance to see through the apparent chaos.

My article on SPC in Management shows how just such a framework can be used as a heuristic to aid you in understanding the system and in making management decisions. Another way is the hypothesis making and testing of experimental design. By asking questions and testing them with data, we begin to create an explanatory theory of why things happen. More importantly, we can continue to test our theory into the future to see if anything has changed.

Someone else’s experience also teaches you nothing

Perhaps it is easier to understand that what you learn from others’ experiences is even less likely to teach you something than trying to learn from your own, but every month brings a new crop of best-sellers that belie that understanding.

It is important to be clear with what I mean here – it is not that other peoples’ experiences are irrelevant to you. Learning about how other people encountered and dealt with their challenges is an important part of learning to be a good manager, or a good person for that matter. It is just that if you try to apply what they think they have learned to your life or work, you may be sorely disappointed with the results.

For example, a high-level manager I knew had been turned onto the book, “Creativity Inc.” that details the story of the rise of Pixar. That book has a lot of really interesting things to learn and think about like the concept of “failing fast.” Failing fast involved trying something to quickly find out if it is going to be helpful or not, then either moving to develop it further or dropping it and moving on. This corresponds to a “theory” in Deming’s quote above. Something that we can ask questions about and test the answers.

However, this leader decided to spend a lot of time, and a lot of money, “doing” Creativity Inc. at her organization. The problem was that the organization she led was riddled with fear of failure due to the very real consequences that most employees encountered if they in fact tried something that didn’t work the first time. Further, there was a lot of ego tied up in various projects that were attempted and the ability to “move on” was virtually nonexistent. People would rather have a team working for years to make something work rather than to find a different way to accomplish the objective. They had a culture that discouraged creativity at every step.

The point is that the lessons gleaned from another person in another environment or company may not in any way be applicable to you. Your company culture, your industry, the employees you hired, all present you with a unique environment. If you don’t have a framework to learn from and test these new ideas, and you just try to implement whatever you just read, you are likely in for some disappointment.

What to do instead

Rather than uncritically reading an article or listening to a motivational speaker, build your own model of how your business works. This allows you to parse the different ideas you are learning into things you can test and try out in your environment.

Here is where my new book Galileo’s Telescope is a bit different than some other books. Rather than tell you what someone did to achieve success, it gives you a framework to build a theory of your organization and find your own path to success.

For example, our model builds a decision support system early on. This documents how all the different areas in your organization think they contribute to what the company is trying to do, a way to test that hypothesis, and information on how well their area is doing. This allows for autonomous continuous improvement that will advance the company’s objectives.

A decision support system is also the foundation on which you can build a strategic plan.

Looked at in this context, the strategic plan documents your hypotheses about what you need to do to make progress towards the long-term vision of where the company needs to go. While everyone is working on their own local improvements, a strategic plan tells the company what breakthroughs we need to be working on together to achieve that vision. A quarterly review of these various projects is the test to see if your hypotheses were correct, allowing you the opportunity to learn from, and correct, your activities to insure you accomplish those breakthroughs.

Look to your own experiences, and those of others, as inspirations for things to try, but try them within the context of a theory of your company. You can build this theory by creating the management framework as outlined in the book, and use that to hone your ability to understand, and therefore improve, your business processes.