System Cannot Understand Itself LO6049

Wayne J. Levin (
Fri, 8 Mar 96 10:49:11 -0500

Replying to LO6025 --

One of the most intriguing aspects of Deming's theory is the notion that
"a system cannot know itself." So I'm not surprised to see it here on the

It's a difficult concept to grasp because it goes against common sense.
Who better to know a system then a member of the system itself? In various
presentations, and in a paper that I'm preparing for the British Deming
Association, I offer the following examples which I have found useful in
explaining the concept:

1) recall the first time you ever heard a recording of your voice: it
sounded unfamiliar. This is because the system generating the voice is
predisposed to hearing it a certain way; a recording is independent of any
such preconception. We hear our voice through a different medium (bones)
than others do (air). Therefore it sounds different.

An interesting aspect of this example is that it helps us understand why
"outside" knowledge is usually rejected initially. Frequently, I know this
was true for me, we reject that voice coming out of the tape recorder as
being our own yet we readily accept that it records everyone else's voice
accurately. Is this not what happened when Dr. Deming suggested to
industry that they would do well to single source? They rejected it, at
first. Today, it's standard operating procedure.

On to other examples:

2) Professional editors or proof-readers are also sources of outside
knowledge. They can spot awkward sentence structures or unintelligible
phrases that make perfect sense to the writer. It is so difficult for
anyone who writes to find even their own spelling mistakes.

- back to the human body here,

3) We are generally quite comfortable with our own body odors, but not
with those of others (should it be detectable). We often are the last to
know when we have bad breath. Other odors are offensive to others but not
to those that produce them (please, don't ask me to explain - I'm already
on thin ice).

Knowledge from outside is vital. We don't appreciate that much of our
knowledge is really "inside" knowledge. Business draws from the same pool
of recruits, reads from the same literature, exchanges ideas and concepts
among colleagues with similar training at the same conferences and trade
associations; all of these are self-reassuring and self-perpetuating
systems of knowledge that obstruct knowledge from outside.

Wayne J. Levin, M.A.Sc., P.Eng
Process Improvements, Inc.
PO Box 77506
592 Sheppard Ave. West
North York, Ontario CANADA
M3H 6A7


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