The knowing-doing gap
If your interests are quality-related – whatever that means – then you'll also be interested in the gaps that exist between what people know and say, and what they do

We've all sat through meetings where a course of action has been agreed, and then nothing has happened. A lot of us will have heard presentations on doing things differently, or better, or faster, or even better – and then carried on exactly as before.

In a recent book (The Knowing-Doing Gap: how smart companies turn knowledge into action, Harvard Business School Press, 2000) Stanford University professors Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton ask (and I'll summarise) 'How come that all the millions of dollars that are spent every year on business education, training, consulting, and research – and the thousands of books published on those subjects – have so little effect on what people actually do?'

Part of the answer, they say, involves how organisations manage what they know. Many take the view that knowledge is tangible (a patent, say) – something to be acquired, measured and distributed. And there's two things wrong with that:

First, it puts a barrier between knowledge, and how that knowledge is applied in the workplace. Often, this is because the people who build the systems for collecting, storing and retrieving knowledge have no idea about how people use it in their jobs. What's really important is tacit knowledge – the stuff passed on by stories, gossip and observation – which is difficult to codify but essential for getting work done. Yet most knowledge management systems emphasise technology, and it's a common (but wrong) conventional wisdom that knowledge management “starts with technology.”

Second, it separates tangible knowledge from the organisation's purpose and values; and worse, overemphasises the former at the expense of the latter. What's this mean? Consider the famous Toyota Production System: everyone knows what it looks like, hardly anyone has managed to copy it successfully. Why? Because the tangibles – kanban cards, andon cords, quality circles – are only part of the story. What you can't see – the Toyota philosophy and culture; the tacit soul of the system – is what really makes it work.

Are you with them so far? If you are, Pfeffer and Sutton lay down a first principle: If you Know by Doing, there is no gap between what you know and what you do. “Learning by reading, or by going to training programs, or from university-based degree programs will get you only so far,” they say. Sure, theoretical knowledge is essential, but it's not sufficient.

This is the key insight of the book, and deceptively simple. It's the reason why the Toyota system works. It's exemplified by firms like Kingston Technology, number 2 in Fortune's 100 best places to work in America, who say “If you do it, then you will know.” And by Honda's “actual part, actual situation” approach to quality. It's the key enabler in Solectron's superb customer satisfaction management systems – where the people who solve quality and performance problems are close enough to the production lines to see every action.

Here's a couple more Pfeffer and Sutton insights that you may find useful:

One of the barriers to turning knowledge into action, they say, is to act as though talking is the same as doing. People often forget that a decision, by itself, changes nothing. Writing and publishing mission statements, for example, is a common substitute for action – but having one is not the same as implementing one. And don't confuse 'having a plan' and 'doing planning' with actually implementing a plan and learning something.

Another common inhibitor is fear. Fear creates knowing-doing gaps because acting on their knowledge requires that people believe they won't be punished for doing so. How do you follow Deming's exhortation and 'drive out fear'? Encourage people to talk about their failures; give them second (and third) chances; banish those who humiliate others; celebrate mistakes; and don't punish innovation.

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