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How was this site’s knowledge created?

… “really great theory should always be embedded in practice.
It should focus on the most challenging difficulties that people are encountering in practical settings.
And it has to be tested by the extent to which it actually offers people’s effectiveness in those practical settings.” – John Dewey

Creating the knowledge we then must manage.
In management circles today Knowledge Management, along with data-driven decisions and information infrastructures, are popular solutions for many of the “symptoms” of an underlying problem infecting all of our modern organizations – the apparent inability to act on what already is known.

But knowledge isn’t just data and information.  Before knowledge can be managed it must be created.  And that creation process requires the real time weaving together of data and information on the loom of practical experience.

The knowledge on this site meets that criterion.  It is a product of observing — through a different lenssystemic knowledge being created and managed over 10 years in a major American school district.  Consequently, it taps into an inside view of how knowledge creation happens, and more important, a developing understanding of an answer to why it happens.  Why, in a work setting that normally lacks the time and resources for learning, would people in an organization create and manage new knowledge together?  And what are the principles that seem to drive that essential learning process?

Back-story of a Why-asker

For those interested in the background that led to that opportunity, the following personal reflections attempt to capture the relevant experiences from the learning journey of a life-long why-asker (who didn’t succumb to the adult world’s insistence that he stop doing it at the age of four or five because they lacked the time, and often the knowledge, to provide answers.)   As it has for others, that question has driven my learning throughout my life and career (and, I fear after I grew up, often made me annoying to others who needed to get on with their daily work.)

Nevertheless, along the way, I’ve discovered Why’s primary contribution to thinking: — “sense-making.”  For me, that product created a level of understanding that could meaningfully frame and explain the more visible answers to the what’s and how’s needed by the people doing the work.

And, more often than not, when that question failed to generate meaningful answers that made systemic sense, it produced warning signals that something might be missing.  It often reminded me of Sherlock Holmes situation when he solved one of his most puzzling cases by noting the significance of something that was absent — a dog not barking.  That is, a natural event not occurring that should have.  And asking why?

Similarly, in education there seemed to be a hidden “thinking problem” that was limiting understanding.  The undetected problem:  While what we accept as “Common Sense” plays a key role in making sense of the work we call schooling, Common Sense no longer seems to work. (see WHY IS SENSE-MAKING SO HARD?)

Still, it remains a critical component of the problem and the solution.  And, paradoxically, it most influences thinking because it is at a level where we don’t usually think about it.

It was not their eyes that limited the systemic understanding of the “Blind Men” around the “Elephant,” but a blind spot in their thinking that made it difficult for them to notice there was a natural “system” already there that gave meaning to their seemingly-separate parts.

So my searching for “why” led to a realization that in order to “get out of the box” that framed our understandings of our organizational “elephants,” I needed to first go deeper in the box created by the maps of those “elephants” we stored in our heads. (see WHY ARE SABU AND THE ELEPHANT OUR METAPHORICAL GUIDES?)

Discovering the power and problems of mental “Maps”

I learned about the power of “Maps” from two experiences – one at the beginning of my career, and one much later with W. Edwards Deming.  And then, over the last 10 years as I directly applied those learnings to understanding the work of a major US school system, I continually encountered the troubles they cause when they don’t match the “Territory.” (See MAPPING THE NATURAL TERRITORY)

The power of maps

  • It was the last week of my military “career” as a junior officer on the intelligence staff of the Commander-in-Chief, Pacific and I was leaving to go to graduate school. I regularly briefed the admirals and generals on what was happening where. My particular part was related to what NSA does today — interpreting electronic intercepts. And since I knew it was my last time, I took a risk that went beyond the “data.”

First I pulled out a wall-size map of Asia and the Pacific on which I had marked locations of all the intercepts we had noted the past year. On this standard Mercator projection-type map they appeared as random events. Then I pulled out another large map – this time a Polar projection – with the same points marked on it. But now they fell into a straight line ending up in Kamchatka. I suggested what it eventually turned out to be — the track of a long-range missile test range.

Apparently changing the reference point from which a perception of reality is mapped (from equator to pole) doesn’t change that territorial reality, but it can allow “dots” to connect in ways that couldn’t be “seen” before.

Anyway, with learnings from that experience buried someplace in my mind, years later I was in the office of the Rochester, NY superintendent of schools. He gestured to a large wall chart of the school district (in a typical “pyramid” format) and lamented that it wasn’t large enough for the most important people — teachers and children — to be included…or if they were, they’d be lost way down at the “bottom.”

As I processed the experience later I realized he was pointing to the “map” that is used, and universally accepted, as the unquestioned frame for organizational problem-solving.  But it did not seem to adequately portray the “territory” in a way that would make practical sense for understanding the nature of effective solutions.

Recalling my Navy learning, I wondered what the “reference-point” was for the relationships that this pyramid-like map portrayed?  What might be understood if a “map” could be drawn in which relationships were defined by a different reference point?  The reality of that territory wouldn’t change, but what “dots” might it now connect?

That started me thinking first about what the reference point was for our present organizational “maps,” and what would happen if, as with a polar projection, we looked at the same elements in relationship to something else — like a student, or a “customer.”

The “pyramid” organization chart was (like the mercator map) a valid way to portray the organizational world… but only for some things.  Just as one can’t see the straight line that is the shortest distance between two points on a mercator map (it shows up as an arc], the pyramid organizational map makes it difficult to “see” the “straight-line” logic of effective, responsive strategies needed to produce results.

As with geographic maps, our organizational maps had a common reference point that served as its organizing principle.  The pyramid’s actual reference point for determining the relationships among its parts was “inputs” or resources that were to be transformed by the organization’s decisions into “outcomes” or results.

What each downward level on the chart indicated was the quantity of resources handled by the people in the “boxes” at each level. (Traditional trickle-down].  But the lines connecting those boxes – portraying connecting relationships between decision-makers — soon became the structure of human relationships that had to support the effective use of those resources.

It’s still a great quantitative map… that only seems to run into problems when one’s concern shifts to issues of quality — which is determined at the other end by the appropriateness of a product or result to a customer or client’s need.  One cannot see on it how the “boxes” relate to each other in terms of this different criterion for success.

The point of this history is that the product of that learning experience was the development of the “thinking tool” (described in MAKING SENSE THROUGH A SYSTEMIC LEADERSHIP & MANAGEMENT LENS) that captures that different perspective.  It is based on “simple” natural rules that seem to drive human problem-solving, and which has shaped my thinking and work from that time on.  In my work in both the public and private sectors, it has served me as a strategic plotboard for understanding and integrating the separate theories-of-change we usually have for individuals and organizations, and then for figuring out ways to capitalize on it.

  • W. Edwards Deming’ way of “mapping” reality also had a unique influence on this learning journey.  His “map” played a significant role in shaping the way I “see” and “think” about organizations, and my direct and “indirect” interactions with him informed the continuing journey.

Deming had a unique sense of the natural territory that underlies the actions of people and organizations.  When he found that it didn’t match the “maps” they used to navigate through it, he spent much of his life challenging people to do something about it.

With a “profoundly”-embedded lens grounded in a single view of people in organizations it made it easy for him to see what didn’t fit.  His coherent sense of what’s “right,” made it easier for him to see what’s wrong.  That’s where his 14 Points came from …and that’s why they resonated with many of us.  We knew they were wrong too, but had accepted them as “the way things are”… and he continually asked us why?

His questions challenged assumptions and beliefs about the scope and nature of how people work alone and together, and frequently opened gaps between what our hearts and guts tell us is right/true, and what our mind tells us really isn’t possible.  And in doing that, he gave us “permission” to also ask why.

For many like me, he raised epiphany-producing questions that set us off on our own journeys to find meaningful answers.  Journeys that changed, and for some consumed, the rest of our professional, and sometimes personal, lives.

Clare Crawford-Mason and Lloyd Dobyns got it right when they noted in Thinking About Quality – “Deming’s concepts are about people making people think.”  As some of the following snapshots suggest, what he did for me was offer opportunities to not only think differently, but as I worked with organizations attempting to act on his way-of-thinking through the AASA Quality Schools Network, I had to face the real time issues of why it is so hard to think differently.

My Deming learnings may have begun in 1983 when, with my own learning journey driven by a “dog-not-barking” sense that something was wrong – things didn’t fit — I became aware of Deming when I read a Washington Post interview with him — “If Americans Don’t Want to Listen to Me, It’s Their Funeral.”

Q: What do you think it is that blocks an attitude of looking towards people as a resource, to this people approach?

Deming: A lot of nonsense. People approach? I don’t know what the hell you mean.

Q: I mean that everybody has to be involved. Feel they have a stake.

Deming:   The workers have always been involved.
The only ones that have been involved.That’s the problem!

“The only ones?”  Did this make sense?  Was he looking at the same organizations the rest of us were? [1]

  • Soon after that I had an opportunity to explore Deming’s ideas with Myron Tribus at MIT.  At the airport that evening, as I reflected on the day, my “takeaway” thoughts (unconsciously influenced by my earlier navy  “map” epiphany) took the form of “A Fable for our Time.”  Years later, he recalled it in the conclusion of his paper — The Quality Imperative In The New Economic Era

August 1985


I am indebted to Lewis A. Rhodes for this little story.

“Once upon a time there was a captain of a ship who carried cargo between San Francisco and Tokyo. He followed a straight line on the map, as shown below. (a Mercator projection)

One day a passenger by the name of Deming came aboard and said, “Captain, why don’t you follow a route like this?” and he drew a curved line as shown in the next figure.  (a Polar projection)

The Captain was not amused. He said, “Look here. I do not have time to follow such a route. I do not have the fuel. My customers are waiting. Everyone knows the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. I tell my men to keep the compass heading right on Tokyo. A straight line means a good bottom line.”

Dr. Deming got off the boat in Tokyo and he began to teach the Japanese captains how to navigate. They followed the “less-straight” route. After a while the American captain noticed that his competitors were offering lower rates and faster service.  He became quite agitated and when in Tokyo harbor he demanded to inspect the other ships. He found to his amazement that they had the same power plant, the same hull design, the same amount of cargo space. The only thing he noticed was that the crew seemed to be going about their work with a certain confidence. “That’s it,” he said, “it’s cultural.”

The one thing the Captain did not examine was the image of the world that was in the other Captain’s head and on the charts from which they continually navigated. He did not recognize that with a different map, the earth did not change, you just see and think about things differently

Too many managers still operate from the premises of the flat earth society. The techniques are there to be used. They are simple, probably simpler than many of the methods now in use. They are easy to learn. All it takes is to abandon the idea that the Earth is flat.”

Dialogues with Deming

In subsequent years, Deming provided unique opportunities to experience the dual truth of Plato’s observation. “Thinking and spoken discourse are the same thing, except that what we call thinking is, precisely, the inward dialogue carried on by the mind with itself without spoken sound.”

  • Over the years, as I reflected on what I had observed people learning from him, that I realized that the power of his “teaching” was not just in direct interactive dialogues, but in the internal dialogues that emerged from the nature of the questions he asked which couldn’t be answered without rethinking beliefs and assumptions.

(For some of the products of this internal dialogue, see THE INFLUENCE OF DEMING’S “MAP”)

That I wasn’t the only one in which he generated internal dialogues begin to become apparent in 1990 in responses to two articles I wrote that first introduced Deming to AASA readers.  As I reflected on it in an article later:

“At 5:45 pm, Monday, February 4, 1991, I was half-way out the door heading home when the office phone rang.  “You don’t know me” the voice said.  “I’m a middle school civics teacher in Sioux City.  I read your Deming articles,” he continued, “and I want you to know that for me Deming is the last great leader of the Enlightenment. . . he’s provided the final, and missing, element of natural law.”

Normally a comment like that would have surprised me.  But this was one more of a series of unanticipated reactions evoked by an article I had written six months earlier about the acknowledged founder of the quality movement, W. Edwards Deming.  What was going on?  For example,

“For an administrator who just ‘hung it up’ after 29 years of trying to influence public education, I found Deming’s words a breath of fresh air . . . you struck a responsive chord and heartened me.”

The most frequent reaction, however, was

“. . . I thought I was the only one who saw possibilities for schools!”

While I was fortunate enough to have interacted personally in direct spoken dialogues with him during the later years of his life, it was the internal dialogues stimulated by his ideas and ways of delivering them that in the end were the most powerful. The products of the internal dialogue generated by his questions many times surfaced in some 24 articles and videos developed to share the answers that seemed to make sense to me.  And to raise questions when they didn’t.

  • Our direct interactions started in his kitchen and, at one point, included a 1-1/2 hour video-taped dialogue about how his ideas were taking root in education at that time.

That first direct interaction started in his living room as I, along with two GM executives, a quality consultant and a retired school superintendent tried to use his “organization-as-a-system” “map” to explain the educational system.  But none of us could answer his simple question: “What is its single aim?”  Why couldn’t we?

After a while he shook his head and left them to their fruitless endeavor and retired to his kitchen.  Over the years I often recalled that event as I participated in meetings and online discussions that attempted to answer that same “simple” question:  What is the single purpose of the “system” we create and call “education?”

I came away wondering why should it be so hard to identify the system’s purpose – the “aim” of all its components, the focal point of all its connecting relationships?

I sensed something was missing.  I wasn’t hearing Holmes’ barking dog.

For example, two of his seemingly counter-intuitive observations directly shaped the way I began “see” and think about organizations. I resonated to them but didn’t know why.

What would one have to believe to declare “The workers have always been involved.  The only ones that have been involved.  That’s the problem!”

And “System Leaders work on the system, not in it.”

My experiences in subsequent years began to demonstrate that almost all organizational leadership problems emerged as consequences of not having beliefs that would make sense of those as both/and “truths.”  And this would be compounded by not knowing what to do about it even if one did.

The missing maps

“Underscoring the whole problem may be a missing perspective, the lack of any feeling for the whole on the part of the so-called professional manager.”
“The Missing Perspective,” In Search of Excellence,
Peters and Waterman, 1982

But how can a CEO or “system leader work on a system they don’t see?  Doesn’t there need to be a way of seeing, and then understanding, an organization in which these two truths co-existed and made sense?   Don’t we need a common framework for understanding the thinking and actions of both an organization as a whole, and at the same time, each of the people in it?

And here is where the truth of “The Map is not the Territory” plays out.  The organization we think we see on the organizational chart “maps” we use for planning strategies and tactical operations in no way reflects the actual territory we must navigate.  A territory that has natural conditions one can’t “control,” but which are driven by principles that can “influence” them.

CEO’s of World Class organizations seem to start with an understanding of that natural system as an asset, and use those assets to drive the journey. (See “Is There a Standard for Meeting Standards?“) [2]

  • Because of these questions, ten years ago I took advantage of an opportunity to get inside the “heads” of a “system,” and watch it do the continual “work” of responding simultaneously and systemically to both the needs that society says must be addressed and the needs that each child brings to the territory of schooling each day.

The power of Territories

For 10 years I’ve been watching how knowledge is created from a major school system’s daily work, and how it was then translated back into the improvement of that work.  Through the confluence of a number of disconnected [3]  events, in 1998 I had a unique opportunity to play a role as an embedded learner in a major US school system as it began to transform itself from the inside out.  (See Catching Them Doing Something Right)

This provided a unique dimension of knowledge as I observed the interactions at the moments-of-truth where Deming’s “theories” could be understood through the eyes of daily practice.

(As an example, in 1997 I had developed a checklist ( that related the core belief of Deming’s Profound Knowledge to schools: i.e., that an organization is a purpose-driven system of interdependent human beings, intrinsically-driven to want to make a little more of a difference in the world tomorrow than they did today.  Little did I know then that I would soon find one that seemed to reflect all of the dimensions of the Checklist I had offered.)

The opportunity also uniquely fit the needs of my learning journey through a career that had placed me in direct and continuing contact with two worlds – one of theory, the other, practice, — and within them two classes of practitioners that supposedly had little in common.

  • In one was a world of daily, disconnected practice that still comprises the “work” of schools.  Here were my action heroes — people (and I don’t mean just teachers) who went to work each day in school systems “hoping” their personal efforts would in some way make a difference for children.  Many years ago when Stanford’s Larry Cuban was a superintendent, he aptly described the unrealistic nature of this universal, and strangely accepted, daily experience: “Teaching is impossible, yet teachers teach. Expected to give individual attention to EACH child, the teacher knows that it can’t be done.”

He might also have added: “School system leadership is impossible.  Expected to address the needs of EVERY child, the superintendent knows that it can’t be done.”

  • The other world housed my thinking heroes – a supposedly “impractical” world of folk whose schooling “worksite” was “20,000 feet” above the others enabling them to “see” contexts, big pictures and patterns within them that others on the ground usually have neither the time, scope of experience nor perspective to see.

Included in this world for me were Drucker, Deming, Sarason, Senge, Wheatley, Ackoff, and others.  What really made these people different was that, unlike the “Blind Men” around the “Elephant,” they were “elephant”-knowers who intuitively accepted that organizations were already connected systems regardless of how fragmented they looked on the surface.  This was the profoundly-embedded frame of their “mental models.”

Some of my deepest learnings from these “thinking heroes” and conceptual mentors had come from direct interactions that seem now like Forest Gump moments. – Among them:

…with Marshall McLuhan over beer in Detroit.
…with Buckminster Fuller over lunch in Denver.
…with W. Edwards Deming in his kitchen as he made corn soup.

And I must add one “meta-hero” – Seymour Sarason – who a decade and a half ago [4] described the “regularities” of schools as seen through the eyes of a Martian in a space capsule hovering over a school and who could only see, and try to make sense of, people’s visible actions.  This provided the role model for my current 10-yr, “20,000 ft. feedback” relationship with the school district whose experiences provide the on-the-ground reality that has been the testbed for the validity of the “simple rules ground into the lens.”

  • As I went back and forth between these two worlds over the years, I eventually began to notice many of the same behaviors in each when they tried to think about and deal with the complex dynamics of schooling.  I had especially seen the fires go out behind the eyes of both teachers and administrators as their best intentions still didn’t make the differences they were supposed to as they tried to navigate through the strange paradoxes and seemingly intractable conditions that plague public education. (Paradoxes in the Present Paradigm (pdf))

In many cases, because they were navigating without a map, caring committed individuals were apparently bumping into “something” that eventually left them so bruised that it drove them from the setting where they thought they could most effectively fulfill their personal commitment to make a difference.  And ironically, some (like me at times) moved into positions in higher education, or associations, or as consultants where they thought their ways-of-thinking, alone, could help other people deal with whatever it was that their own actions never could when they were on the front-lines.

Nevertheless, in both camps were people, like me, who

–    were frustrated with the results and processes of schools, and the finger-pointing assumptions about their causes;
–    wanted to do something now about the ways school’s “work” for all children not just some;
–    were even more discouraged by a history of attempts to do that which only produced things that “worked”…but not for long.
–     And who now might be ready to step out-of-the-box that bounded their way of thinking about the work of schooling.

But to do that, it seemed to me, also required asking a different question:  Why has it been so hard to find a way to do it?

Why, when everyone wants, at the end of the day, to make a difference for children in both today’s schools and tomorrow’s, does it continue to seem impossible to integrate into sustainable common practice the common sense of effective practitioners and the growing base of common knowledge offered by theory and research-based principles?

As long as it remained unasked, it remains unanswered.  And helping to think about why it was so hard to even ask that question is one of the personal take-away benefits of my 10-year relationship with the systemic practices of a single school district.   For me, it addressed the agony I had often experienced when asked:  “…but what do we do on Monday?”

My jobs and roles over the years had allowed me to present and write about the ideas of my “thinking heroes” that made sense to me.  And, judging by reactions to them by others, seemed to resonate with their intrinsic values and sense of what should be.

But then, because of my work with national practitioner associations, I frequently heard (and began to dread) the “…yes, but what do we do on Monday?” response.  It didn’t take long for me to realize that, for those on the ground, every day there is a “Monday.”  But the contextual understanding I lacked was how “Monday” connects to the “Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday…etc.” that naturally follow. Sharing the potential learnings about the scope and nature of that connectedness (Catching Them Doing something Right) — as “should be’s” transformed into “can be’s over ten years — is one of purposes of this site

“To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle requires creative imagination and marks real advances in science. …Any fool can know. The point is to understand.” – Albert Einstein


[1]   Later I would find this resonated with the common sense that emerges from system leaders accountable for efficiency and effectiveness of organizations as a whole – world class CEO’s, such as Charles Garfield, who point to their organization’s moments-of-truth where all of the system’s thinking and actions are at the mercy of the interactions between the last person on the line and the customer. “The total enterprise is represented at the point and moment of service (provider not just a link at end of chain)  In that one act or series of acts the total/ whole is represented — much like a hologram.  The quality of that act is in its responsivity.”—Charles Garfield

[2]  Chosen by Education Week in 2007 for inclusion in The Last Word — its compilation of the “Best Commentary in American Education” over the past 25 years.

[3]  Unless one believes in synchronicity

[4]  Sarason, The Predictable Failure of Educational Reform:  Can We Change Course Before Its Too Late?, 1990


Comment from Bob Bastress
Time October 27, 2010 at 3:02 pm

What worked well with the AASA Quality Schools Network and what didn’t?
Did members of the network “see” a different map?
What did people in the school system keep “bumping into” that kept them from making a difference?

Comment from admin
Time October 28, 2010 at 12:08 pm

Did members of the network “see” a different map?

This is a great question because it goes to one of this sites’ purposes which is to differentiate between “Maps” and the “Territories” they are supposed to represent accurately enough to use as we navigate through the complex experiences of daily life. (Mapping the Natural Territory–
My belief is that TQN members seemed to share a common characteristic. The all had a different sense of the “territory.” They were intuitive “big picture”-seeking strategic thinkers who were trying to get their minds around what their hands were around every day. They found that thinkers like Deming, Drucker, Senge, Ackoff, etc. offered them ways to think outside their “boxes,” and the tools and processes of Quality Management gave them better ways to “connect-the-dots.”

I attempted to describe their situation (which I felt few people appreciated then and now) in an article I wrote for AASA when they first hired me. (“Total System Management: The Leader as Convoy Commander”-
…and then in a post MCPS follow-up in 2009- (“The Convoy Revisited: How did it Steer through troubled waters and Develop its capacity at the same time?”

What worked well with the AASA Quality Schools Network and what didn’t?

What I felt worked well were the opportunities for people with a like mindset to find out they were not alone (or crazy), and to continually learn from the TQN’s context and content. Among these opportunities were

• The regularly published Total Quality Network News that carried challenging ideas and related news. Three of them are embedded under “Resources, and I can add more if anyone’s interested.

• sessions at the annual AASA conference as well as other workshops and events sponsored or co-sponsored by the TQN over the years that offered opportunities for them to think about how to apply quality management tools at all levels of the systems’ work.

• and the one that offered the most learning value (at least for me) were monthly phone conference calls with superintendents and others where they shared problems and what was working for them. For some, like Lee Jenkins, it offered a test bed for some of his concepts and tools that resulted in his early books tying Deming’s ideas to schooling – e.g., his 1996 Improving Student Learning up through his later career as a successful advocate of continuous improvement in schooling .

What did people in the school system keep “bumping into” that kept them from making a difference?

My thoughts here are bracketed by what I saw them “bumping into” 12 years ago and the extent to which those barriers remain today. Chief among these were the unquestioned assumptions about the nature of the work they did each day.

For example:
• that as isolated practitioners they were singularly accountable for the results of the work they were expected to do “alone.”

• that what they didn’t know, and couldn’t do, could be fixed by occasional “professional development” outside of the work

• that there was no gap between what “making a difference and knowing you did it every day” meant to them, and what it meant to those outside the school’s daily work who were only assessing that difference at the end of the year and then holding them accountable for it.

To what extent are they bumping into these now?

What I see in many cases is that they have discovered they are not alone, that there is an increasing understanding that the work of “teaching” or instruction is the work the district “shares responsibility” for, and that its the district’s “accountability” to provide the support everyone needs to make a difference everyday. And that the ways to do it involve tapping knowledge, information and skills individual job holders may not have in the moment in ways that enable them to learn from it and increase their capacity for next time.

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