Profound knowledge, systems, and operational definitions
I spent some time last night discussing the following proposition: “Is the economy fair to women?” with Daniel.
Because we didn’t have an agreed-on procedure that produced a way to measure fairness, we were probably not talking about the same thing. So we spent time trying to develop an agreed-on procedure.
Later, I remembered that W. Edwards Deming had explained, as part of his system of profound knowledge, how to analyze a concept like quality or fairness.
Deming’s system of profound knowledge
Here’s how Deming defines it:
The system of profound knowledge is made up of four components through which the world is looked at simultaneously. These components function as lenses through which we see, and all four are related to each other:
Appreciation for a system,
Knowledge about variation,
Theory of knowledge, and
Knowledge of psychology
If we’re talking about a concept—like quality, or fairness—the concept only has meaning if you can define a procedure for measuring it within that system. A measurement procedure will have a certain amount of variance, and that variance needs to be understood.
What’s a system?
Here’s Deming’s definition of a system:
What is a system? A system is a network of interdependent components that work together to try to accomplish the aim of the system.
A system must have an aim. Without an aim, there is no system. The aim of the system must be clear to everyone in the system. The aim must include plans for the future.
The aim is a value judgment… Management of a system therefore requires knowledge of the interrelationships between all of the components within the system and of the people that work in it
From ‘The New Economics: For Industry, Government, Education’ MIT Press: Massachusetts p 50
To define a system, we need to identify its components and articulate the system’s aim. Without an aim, we’ve just listed a collection of components, and not defined a system.
A system has many attributes that we might want to evaluate and possibly improve. To do so, we need to come up with a reliable way to measure the attribute. The measurement technique constitutes an “operational definition” of that attribute.
What’s an operational definition?
This article explains operational definitions.
The New Economics by W. Edwards Deming, page 105: “An operational definition is a procedure agreed upon for translation of a concept into measurement of some kind.”
An operational definition specifically states how to measure the item being defined. Many difficulties can arise without operationally defined measures. For example, how would you decide whether your plane arrived on time? Landing by the time stated as the arrival time, stopping at the gate, the first passenger leaving the plane, the last passenger leaving the plane, the last passenger leaving the plane within 10 minutes of the printed arrival time? How would you measure the number of trees in a park: does it count as a tree if it appears to be dead, what if it is just a stump, what if it is just a 2 inch tall sprout, what if it seems like a tree but is classified as a bush by horticulturists. How would you count the number of attendees at a sporting event? The number of tickets sold (regardless of whether they actually are used), the number of people who use a ticket to get into the event, every person at the event (spectators, workers at the arena, vendors, athletes), number of spectators with tickets arriving before halftime?
An operational definition is a well-defined procedure that produces a measurement.
So if we’re trying to consider the question “Is the economy fair to women,” we need to define what we mean by “the economy”—the system under consideration. And we need to provide an operational definition for fairness.
More to come