Harnessing knowledge through metaphors

1st June 2012
Simon Baker

Continuing my last post about the knowledge iceberg, Ikujiro Nonaka and Hirotaka Takeuchi tell a story of the Honda City in their book The Knowledge-Creating Company.

In 1978 Honda kicked off the development of a new-concept car with the slogan “Let’s gamble”. It expressed the conviction of senior executives that the Honda Civic and Accord models were becoming too familiar. Taking the slogan to heart, Honda formed a product development team from young engineers and designers with the average age of 27. Senior executives gave them two instructions. First, to come up with a product concept fundamentally different from anything the company had ever done before; and second, to make a car that was inexpensive but not cheap. Remarkably this provided the team with an extremely clear sense of direction. Early on in the project, some team members proposed designing a smaller and cheaper version of the Civic – that was a safe and feasible option. Realizing this contradicted slogan, the team decided to look for something totally new.

Hiroo Watanabe, the project’s team leader coined the slogan “Automobile evolution” to express his sense of the challenge. It posed the question: If the automobile were an organism, how should it evolve? The team members discussed what Watanabe’s slogan might mean and came up with another slogan “Man-maximum, machine-minimum.” This captured the team’s belief that the ideal car should somehow transcend the traditional human-machine relationship. This was embodied in the image of a car short in length and tall in height. The team reasoned that such a car would be lighter, cheaper and provide more room for passengers while taking up less space on the road. The product concept called “Tall boy” was born, which eventually led to the distinctively urban Honda City. The City’s revolutionary styling and engineering were prophetic. The car catalyzed a whole new approach to design in the Japanese automobile industry based on the “Man-maximum, machine-minimum” slogan. Nowadays, “tall and short” cars are everywhere.

We can see in the story that figurative language is used effectively to articulate intuitions and insights and help individuals understand a concept intuitively through imagination and without analysis. Using metaphors people piece together what they know and find new ways to express it. A metaphor helps clarify how two ideas are alike and not alike; it “connects imagination and logical thinking”.

From personal to organizational knowledge

An organization cannot create knowledge on its own. The story demonstrates how new knowledge starts with the initiative of an individual, the team leader Hiroo Watanabe, and how his personal knowledge is transformed into organizational knowledge that’s valuable to the company through dialogue, discussion, experience sharing and observation amongst a group of people working with a shared purpose. The team creates a shared context for interactions and facilitates individuals to create new points of view through dialogue and discussion. This can certainly involve disagreement and conflict but that’s what encourages people to question existing premises and to make sense of their experiences in new ways. The evolution of their thinking is evident in the progressive elaboration of the metaphors, starting from “Let’s gamble” to “Automobile evolution” to “Man-maximum, machine-minimum” and arriving at “Tall boy”.

New knowledge is born in the midst of ambiguity and redundancy

The story suggests how certain organizational conditions or constraints can enhance creativity and the creation of new knowledge. The “Let’s gamble” slogan handed down by Honda’s senior executives together with their two instructions “to come up with a product concept fundamentally different from anything the company had ever done before” and “to make a car that was inexpensive but not cheap” provided the team with a sense of direction. Additionally, and importantly, the confusion created by the ambiguity of that mission statement proved to be useful for the team as a source of alternate meanings and as a catalyst for fresh thinking.

At many Japanese companies, redundant product development sees a team divided into competing micro-teams that pursue different approaches and develop different solutions to the same problem. Think of Toyota’s set-based concurrent engineering. Through frequent dialogue and communication these micro-teams argue over the advantages and disadvantages of their proposals. This helps to create a “common cognitive ground” among all the team members and facilitate the transfer of tacit knowledge between individuals. Redundancy encourages a team to look at something from a variety of perspectives and, under the guidance of a team leader, develop a common understanding of the best approach.

Metaphors all the way down

“New knowledge is born out of chaos when the confusion can be directed toward purposeful knowledge creation.” In the Honda story it’s as though a funnel made from metaphors directed the thinking and knowledge creation, keeping exploration open while narrowing the focus as options were considered and eliminated. The grand vision set out by the senior executives expressed their aspirations and ideals and established the criteria for measuring the value of the knowledge being created. As things progressed the metaphors morphed and matured as the whole team found new inspiration from revisiting and examining them. Using metaphors helped synthesize the tacit knowledge of individuals and make it explicit in order to create a new product that lived up to the vision.

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