Measurement, Knowledge, Management, and Science

(Another in the series of quotes to start the week.)

Nearly everyone who has studied science knows the name “Lord Kelvin,” if only for the absolute temperature scale which bears his name. William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin (26 June 1824 – 17 December 1907) was a physicist and engineer from Belfast, Ireland, who did foundational work in thermodynamics and electricity at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. He was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1866 for his contributions to the transatlantic telegraph. In 1892 he was the first British scientist to receive a noble title and a seat in the House of Lords. As noted above, “Kelvin” was part of his title, rather than his actual name; it referred to a river which flows by the University of Glasgow.

In 1883, when he was still Sir William Thomson, he gave a lecture on “Electrical Units of Measurement” in which he said,

I often say that when you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely, in your thoughts, advanced to the stage of science, whatever the matter may be.

This quote is nicely precise, as we might expect of a 19th century man of science. As such, it contrasts with one of the pernicious lies of modern management that still traps well-meaning but poor-thinking people today: specifically, the idea that “you can’t manage what you can’t measure.” That quote is often (but wrongly) attributed to Peter Drucker, and it may be that no one knows who originated it. But it is, as Dr. W. Edwards Deming frequently pointed out in his seminars, a myth.

The truth is, every day we encounter situations involving variables that we cannot measure. Sometimes they are things that could be measured if we had sufficient instruments and time to devote to the effort; sometimes they are things that are ineffable, and for which devising a measurement would be folly. We still have to manage those situations and navigate our way through them; we cannot throw up our hands in despair simply because the situation did not come with a convenient set of measurements and statistics attached to it.

Sometimes the people who proclaim that measurement is necessary to management are in the business of selling measurement practices or techniques. And they may take advantage of managers who have never had to measure things in the real world. Those managers would do well to apply a little skepticism and heed the words of William Bruce Cameron, who said in the 1958 article “Tell Me Not in Mournful Numbers,”

Counting sounds easy until we actually attempt it, and then we quickly discover that often we cannot recognize what we ought to count. Numbers are no substitute for clear definitions, and not everything that can be counted counts.

In 1963, Cameron elaborated by writing, “not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” How many managers would benefit from understanding that!

Often when managers decry the lack of measurements to justify the decisions they wish to make, they do so without any real appreciation for the difficulty of measuring things with accuracy and precision. Their bathroom scale works, though they may not like what it reports; the gauge in their car indicates its fuel status with some reliability; these and other experiences lead them to expect to receive similar reports of progress or status on whatever aspect of the business is under their scrutiny that day.

Which brings us back to Sir Thomson, Lord Kelvin, and his observation about measurement. He wisely allowed for the possibility of not being able to measure something — thus, that late 20th century management aphorism, whatever its source, was invalidated roughly a hundred years before it was spread! While he then said that our knowledge of a thing may be stunted by lacking measurements for it, that does not mean we have no knowledge of it at all; even “the beginning of knowledge” is knowledge of a sort. But what was Kelvin’s interest in measurement? Was it management? No! It was science.

And, though managers may like to claim otherwise, management is not science.


(Image: JPL imagery from the Jason-2 satellite, showing “Kelvin Waves” — named after Lord Kelvin, who discovered them — moving eastward along the equator.)

That’s all I have to say on the subject, at the moment, but I’d be happy to discuss it at length if you like. Meanwhile, I hope you have a good week!

___
P.S. Last week I mentioned possibly ending this series, and I’m still undecided on that point. Let me know if you have feelings about that, one way or another.

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The Power of a Single Thought

I had a dream last night, but I can’t remember anything about it because in that tenuous state between sleeping and waking I had another thought — specifically, an idea related to a short story I plan to write — and that thought drove every vestige of the dream from my mind.

And, in the process, it impressed upon me the power of a single thought: that it only takes one single thought to crowd out all other thoughts. One single thought, if we concentrate strong enough on it or if we find it sufficiently compelling, will color our perceptions and bind us in mental chains.

I admit that this observation is not really new or particularly profound — others have pointed out our tendency to hold on to and defend various ideas in the face of contrary evidence — but it hit me this morning in a powerful way.

Consider this: complete each of the following sentences with the first thing that comes into your mind.

  • Hillary Clinton is a __.
  • Donald Trump is a __.
  • Gary Johnson is a __.
  • Jill Stein is a __.

Locked and Loaded

What strong chains we forge to bind our thinking! (Image: “Locked and Loaded,” by Thomas Hawk, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

 

Was your first thought about each of them positive, negative, or neutral? It likely depended on where you fall along the political spectrum and, in the case of the Libertarian and Green party candidates, whether you know much about them at all.

Now, consider each of the following statements that may be considered observable facts:

  • Hillary Clinton is a lawyer.
  • Donald Trump is a businessman.
  • Gary Johnson is a businessman.
  • Jill Stein is a doctor.

How do you react to those simple statements about the career paths of the candidates, based on your first thought about each of them? Do you find that the first thing that came to mind earlier influenced your reaction to the next thing that was presented?

It seems to me that those first thoughts become our filters, the lenses (rose-colored or otherwise) through which we see the world. The first thought, especially if it conveys a value judgment, becomes, if you will, a self-fulfilling mental prophecy.

This applies to more than just politics, of course, but the political example occurred to me this morning because it’s particularly timely. In some respects this tendency is wired into the way we think and learn: according to Theory of Knowledge, we form concepts and then test those concepts against reality, but sometimes our concepts affect how we perceive reality. As a result, I’m not sure any of us can (or if it would even be desirable to) remain completely objective, with neutral impressions of everything. We are not Vulcans, after all.

But maybe, if we recognize this mechanism in our own thinking, we can be a bit more accepting, a bit more forgiving, not by rejecting our first thought or convincing ourselves that our first thoughts are wrong, but simply by recognizing that our first thought may be incomplete.

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Monday Morning Insight: Finding Out What We Don’t Know

(Another in the continuing series of quotes to start the week.)

 

Today is Napoleon Bonaparte’s birthday (15 August 1769 – 5 May 1821), so you might expect that I would discuss a Napoleonic quote. I could — he has a plethora of quotes including a phrase I use rather a lot (“From the sublime to the ridiculous is but a step,” he said) — but Napoleon was kind of a jerk. Sure, he sold us Louisiana and a whole lot more, and he was a skilled military commander, but this week’s quote comes from the commander who bested him at Waterloo: the Duke of Wellington.

In addition to being a celebrated military leader in sixty different battles, Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington (1 May 1769 – 14 September 1852), was a Member of Parliament and twice Prime Minister of Britain. I think one of his most interesting quotes is

All the business of war, and indeed all the business of life, is to endeavour to find out what you don’t know by what you do; that’s what I called “guessing what was at the other side of the hill.”

Hill

What’s on the other side? (Image: “Hill,” by Henry Burrows, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

 

I like that because so much of what we do, and so many decisions we make in our lives, are based on our guesses about conditions that we aren’t sure of — what’s on “the other side of the hill” — combined with our predictions of what will happen if we take this action or that. According to Theory of Knowledge, we test our guesses and predictions against experience and thereby prepare ourselves for the next decisions we must make, and the next, and so on.

So, whatever decisions you have to make and whatever unknowns you face, may all your guesses be accurate, your predictions sound, and your courage strong.

Have a great week!

___
P.S. As for the quote itself, I found it in a number of different places but the attribution seemed odd. It was twice dated 10 days before the Duke’s death, yet once it was referred to as being included in a book covering an earlier period of his life. That’s a bit of a mystery, but I still like the quote.

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