The Value of Not Knowing

By Steve Kane
Reprinted with permission –

I recently ran across this posting at Gemba Academy and it really resonated with me.  Being one who ascribes to the "less is more" philosophy, I have always been at a loss to fully explain this notion to others. Especially, under the circumstance of coaching others or parenting and helping them through situations where it's too easy to simply offer up the answer, giving the answer has always been a challenge to me. Here's the post and great explanation to the "less is more" reasoning.


If I am wiser. . . it is because I know that I do not know.

– Socrates


Is it possible that expertise on a particular subject can become an obstacle to learning and growth?

There comes a point when a person is more apt to be asked for knowledge or advice on a particular subject than to ask for it.  In the context of work, this person is the resident expert. This is the person others go to to find out how something is done. This person is certainly an asset in some respects.  But, can this person be a liability in others?

Of course, we could go on about the importance of standard work. I’ll leave that for another article. Instead I’d like to discuss the risk of being an expert.

The process stagnates with the knowledge of the expert.

The expert has “been there and done that” more times than one can imagine.  This person knows the job and knows that he knows the job.  This is why others go to him for knowledge and advice. The learner might improve by going to the expert for coaching.  The process, though, doesn’t.  The process stagnates with the knowledge of the expert.

It seems that processes improve when we are humble and look with new eyes.  Standing in the Ohno circle with the mind of the expert leads to aching feet. It is when we stand in the circle with the mind of a novice that we begin to open ourselves to learning.

Is expertise enough, or should more emphasis be placed on wisdom?

Simply giving information can hinder the learning process and weaken the skills of the learner. Learning how to learn is more important than the subject matter to be learned. We certainly want the learner to be able to do the job.  We also want the learner to think of a way to improve the process.

Instilling the belief that the method taught is the best could impede improvement thinking. If the learner meets expectations by performing a skill as taught, improvement stops. The expectation must be to find a way to improve upon the way being taught.

Sometimes the best wisdom to share with the learner is “I don’t know.”

We want people thinking for themselves.  In my role as a lean leader, I gave up trying to be the expert on everything. Instead I embraced my ignorance. People often came to me for direction or instruction. It was when I answered questions with “I don’t know. What do you think?” that things really started to improve.

The universe abhors a vacuum. Creating a void in expertise with “I don’t know” invites greater expertise.  This is when ideas are shared and explored.

Is there a better way?

I don’t know.  What do you think?