Uncovering the Roots of LEAN & DevOps: Conceptual Pragmatism

Posted on June 10, 2015

In the purest sense of the word, I am a philosopher, a lover of wisdom.  If I learn something about a concept, I’ve gained knowledge, but if I learn about a concepts origins I gain understanding, which leads to wisdom.  With wisdom I can anticipate behavior.

Deming was a genius, without a doubt, but anyone who knows Deming also knows that he was first and foremost the student of Shewhart.   Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the “Deming Cycle” (Plan-Do-Check-Act), which Deming never claimed as his own, rather he taught it as the “Shewhart Cycle” (Plan-Do-Study-Adjust).  To know one is to know the other.  If Deming is the father of LEAN (and he is), and you want to better understand his mind, you need to look closely at Shewhart.

In The New Economics Deming sets for the “System of Profound Knowledge”.  I’ve blogged about it before.  This system consists of 4 components:

  1. Appreciation of a System
  2. Understanding of Variation
  3. Theory of Knowledge
  4. Understanding of Psychology

The first, “Appreciation of a System”, has become known as “Systems Thinking” and there is a lot of work available, especially from Jay Forrester of MIT and his most famous student Peter Senge who wrote The Fifth Discipline, the best introductory text available to date on the subject.  Another great source is Shewhart and Deming’s good friend (and my favorite personality in the field) Russell Ackoff.

The second, “Understanding of Variation”, is also known as Statistical Process Control.  Shewhart himself wrote an excellent book on the subject, Statistical Method from the Viewpoint of Quality Control.

The fourth, “Understanding of Psychology”, has a great number of resources available.  I think the foundational text (if you laugh you either have never really read it or have forgotten its potency) is How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie.   Additionally I’d also point to “mental models” covered well in The Fifth Discipline.

These three topics above I found readily accessible for research and analysis individually.  But the third is harder to crack.  In Deming’s book he speaks all to vaguely about it.  You get the sense that he’s referencing something, but its not clear what he’s drawing from.  Most readers correctly surmise “PDCA!  Thats what he’s talking about”.  While this answer isn’t wrong, I’ve always felt it was grossly incomplete and my ignorance gnawed at me.  Every several months I’d take up the subject again looking for something I’d missed, unsuccessfully.  Until about 3 months ago when I found the missing link.

Any student of philosophy will know that “Theory of Knowledge” is academically known as Epistemology.  Epistemology is a subject that can drive you mad if you aren’t well grounded and taking frequent breaks.  Its the paradoxical study of knowledge itself, and how we known what we know, and most importantly for Deming, how we learn new things.  The PDCA Cycle certainly produces knowledge, after all its simply the scientific method applied to business.  But that’s too simple an explanation…. there had to be much more than that.

The missing link is Pragmatism.  More specifically, CI Lewis’s Conceptual Pragmatism as outlined in his book Mind and the World Order, which was a heavy influence on Shewhart and Deming, and likely other thinkers in the field.  Moreover, while most LEAN practitioners (and by extension those other movements that follow in LEAN’s footsteps, such as Agile & DevOps) have likely only a passing knowledge of Pragmatism (in the philosophical sense) and never heard of CI Lewis, we are all touched by his work unknowingly.

Mind and the World Order is a philosophical proof text.   Its not easy reading and isn’t recommended to the casual reader, but its once you grasp what he’s getting at you can’t help but realize you’ve found a missing root which has been the basis upon which Forrester, Shewhart and Deming based much of their thinking.

For those who might want a more gentle introduction to Pragmatism, I recommend William James’s book Pragmatism (which is actually a series of lectures given on the subject).  James’ is much more accessible and he is most often quoted of the Pragmatists.  There were however holes in the thinking, which Lewis resolved.  So bulk up on James before diving into Lewis.