The basic unit of knowledge is a question.


"The basic unit of knowledge is a question."  This is a common saying at Toyota, where hierarchical, authority-based leadership is eschewed in favor of responsibility-based leadership. Which is to say that people at the top of the corporate food-chain don't drive all the decisions just because they sit in an Aeron chair and have a big desk.

Rather, people throughout the organization, using the A3 process (excellent description and case study available here) are not only given the responsibility, but are EXPECTED -- to solve problems by asking questions, and developing and testing possible solutions. As John Shook explains,

the A3 process can facilitate the shift from a debate about who owns what (an authority-focused debate) to a dialogue around what is the right thing to do (a responsibility-focused conversation). This shift has a radical impact on the way decisions are made. Individuals earn the authority to take action through the manner in which they frame the issue.
This concept of making a question the basis of authority means that a premium is based on knowledge -- the knowledge gained by asking all those questions. The nurses who actually dispense drugs will probably know far more than the Director of Administration about why errors occur. The guy operating the stamping machine will know more than the VP of Manufacturing about why a machine breaks down so often. A sales clerk in a retailer will know more than the store manager about why the merchandise layout isn't working. It only makes sense to learn by asking questions of people that have the knowledge.

In January, I'll be engaging in an A3 problem solving process with a company to find out why their meetings suck so badly. They already know the elements of a good meeting -- they even have "Meeting Principles" posted on the walls of their conference rooms. But something isn't working right, because these principles are more often observed in the breach than in the adherence. I have some ideas, of course. But mostly we'll be asking questions to understand the root causes of their colossally sucky meetings. And with that knowledge, we'll gain the authority to make changes.

I'll keep you posted.

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