The W. Edwards Deming Institute Blog

Riding a Bike and the Theory of Knowledge


Theory of knowledge, how we know what we know, is an area that is difficult for most people to understand and see the value of. But it is very powerful and impacts and interacts with all the other aspects of the Deming management system (psychology, understanding variation and the appreciation of systems thinking).

Once we accept certain beliefs our psychology then has confirmation bias pushing us to cement these beliefs further (even if the evidence isn’t really their confirmation bias makes us believe it is). Then we put related thoughts on auto-pilot where we don’t consciously question them.

I think this video provides a powerful view of a similar process at work. Our body incorporates experience and we learn how to accomplish something. We tend to think of this in a way like we have learned something about how things work – for example “how to ride a bike.”

We can use that learning to go ride most any other bike very easily. But we actually haven’t so much learned some new knowledge that we can apply to various situations. Really we learned a skill and don’t really understand what we are doing. We have learned to do it, in many ways without understanding what it is we are doing.

This video is a wonderfully visual example of how hard it can be for us to drop our ingrained habits and pick up new ones. When you watch this think about management concepts that are so difficult to drop that managers feel like this person trying to ride a bike.

The bike looks just like any other bike but reacts in a different way to the bike riders actions. But that small adjustment on how the bike reacts is very challenging to overcome and makes you very uncomfortable while you try to make sense of this odd new system.

Managers trying to adopt new management concepts into their way of managing don’t have such visually obvious manifestations of their struggles. But this video seems to me to be a way of visualizing the trouble many managers face when asked to learn different ways of viewing the organization; for example when they struggle to view the organization as system, or question the wisdom of bonuses for reaching sales targets, or the problems with performance appraisal, or that the results are just a manifestation of the variation within the system not evidence of individual failures, etc..

If we saw the managers struggles as obviously as the struggles of the bike rider it would drive home the point that adopting a new view of how things work can be difficult and confusing. Another nice feature if the struggles were so obvious is that we would be able to identify when they really did finally get it (grok) the new way of thinking. The smooth ride would be obvious. Sadly it isn’t that easy.

Another interesting parallel is how once the brain finally is able to adopt the new worldview how quickly results change. It is obviously a true transformation. The struggle to get to the point where transformation is possible is often long and frustrating. But the common idea that “it just clicked one day and everyone was clear” has an obvious parallel in the video. Though, at least in the bike example (and my guess is it is also true for management ideas though to a much lessor extent), the new way of thinking was still fragile and he could easily lose the ability to think and act in a new way with any distraction (even just like a phone ringing) and be thrown back to the old way of thinking.

Another likely parallel is while you know that you can’t rely on your old instincts to ride the new bike you can’t help yourself. Your brain acts based on the old “knowledge” of how to react to a situation (the bike moving to the right, for example) even if you are consciously repeating “don’t think what worked before is going to work now.” Your brain doesn’t listen to your brain and then the results are not good.

Related: Theory of Knowledge: Can We Trust Our Memories?Deming 101: Theory of Knowledge and the PDSA Improvement and Learning CycleExperience Teaches Nothing Without TheoryWe are Being Ruined by the Best Efforts of People Who are Doing the Wrong Thing

Categorised as: psychology, theory of knowledge


  1. John Dowd says:

    I find it useful to distinguish between learning a skill (that involves physical activity and ‘muscle memory’ and other kinds of learning that leads to knowledge. It may be useful to think of a learned skill (e.g. shooting foul shots) as a kind of knowledge (“He ‘knows’ how to sink a shot from the free throw line”), but I think there is a qualitative distinction to be made between that kind of knowledge and other types of knowledge (e.g. the knowledge of a person who ‘knows’ God). There is also ‘scientific’ knowing and, I’m sure, other types of knowing as well. BTW I loved the video and the quote from Proverbs at the end.

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