Who’s Got Profound Knowledge?

Guest Post by Dr. Doug Stilwell, Drake University

Let me share a true story with you. It was late spring in 1994. I was nearing the completion of my first year as a principal in the West Des Moines Community (Iowa) School District and it was time for my end-of-year evaluation. I sat in the office of my supervisor, Dr. Doug Buchanan, where we reviewed the marks and explanatory comments he had given me on the evaluation.  Whew…most items “met the standard” with a few “exceeding.” At the completion of the formal portion of the review, Dr. Buchanan pushed back from his desk and asked me the following question: “What are you thinking about for the future?” I paused for a moment, thinking somewhat deeply about what he asked. “Well,” I responded confidently, “I think I would like to start doing some speaking and presenting at workshops and conferences.” Dr. Buchanan paused and then responded with six simple words that stick with me to this day.  “Doug,” he said leaning back in his chair and looking directly at me, “….you have to know something first” (C.D. Buchanan, personal communication, 1994).

“I have to know something first?” I thought angrily. “I have to know something first? You’ve got to be kidding!” I was coming to the end of a pretty successful school year in my rookie year as a principal, a position I had been hired into directly from my role a classroom teacher, in this highly-respected district in Iowa and I thought I was ready to do some “big things” moving forward.  His words cut through me, deflating the bravado that had led to my response to his question.

Those six words, “You have to know something first,” have stuck with and driven me the past 26 years, so much so that I was honored to have Dr. Buchanan serve as a member of my doctoral dissertation committee in 2004. Upon the successful defense of my work, he said to me in good humor, “Well, you finally know something!” for I had reminded him many times over the years of his “need to know something first” comment.

When I think of those six words and the sentiment behind them, I now think that Dr. Buchanan’s urging me to “know something” was likely intended to go far beyond the requisite content knowledge needed to be competent in one’s career. Without using the exact words, I now think Dr. Buchanan was telling me that what I needed was “profound knowledge” before I would ever be able to share anything of importance and relevance. The aim of this writing is to examine and build an understanding of profound knowledge, in perhaps some unique ways, and to ask and answer whether, and to what degree, it is needed in education.

Dr. W. Edwards Deming is renowned for developing the “System of Profound Knowledge.”  It was the result of his own learning and thinking and, while always under his own scrutiny, served as the theoretical  framework for his work. It consists of four interrelated components: appreciation for a system, psychology, variation, and theory of knowledge and is operationalized in many ways, including through his “14 Points for Managers.” However, it is his use of the term “profound” that often created a sense of consternation for me.  What causes an understanding of systems, psychology, knowledge of variation, and theory of knowledge to be considered “profound” knowledge?  When asked this question Dr. Deming simply answered, “Because it is profound” (Baker, 2017, p. 94). Enough said?  Well…not yet.

Beyond its application to Dr. Deming’s work, what is meant by the term profound? In his book, The Symphony of Profound Knowledge: W. Edwards Deming’s Score for Leading, Performing, and Living in Concert, Edward Baker provided a background for understanding by asking and answering the question, “Why did Deming call his system of knowledge ‘profound’?” (2017, p. 94):

Religious scholars and wisdom teachers have used the adjective to characterize knowledge that reflects a way of being.  Profound knowledge was viewed as a guide to daily living, to the thinking and values that are manifested in the daily conduct of one’s life…The term ranges in application and characterization from broad, total knowledge to deep, specialized knowledge. The term has been used to refer to wisdom and morality (p. 94).

In the book The Improvement Guide: A Practical Approach to Enhancing Organizational Performance (2009), the authors tell us that the word profound signifies deep insight and knowledge. Dictionary.com defines profound as “penetrating or entering deeply into subjects of thought or knowledge; having deep insight or understanding.” But now let’s move beyond definitions and operationalize the term by examining a couple of examples.  One is from children’s literature and the other from the world of comedy.

From his fantasy novel series, The Chronicles of Narnia, in the book The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, author C.S. Lewis wrote about a magical land called Narnia. When the pivotal conflict occurs toward the end of the book, the story’s antagonist, the White Witch, acted upon her knowledge of the “deep magic” of Narnia, killing the story’s protagonist, Aslan.  However, Aslan possessed knowledge of the Narnia’s “deeper magic,” which resulted in “death working backwards,” restoring him to life. In this context, Aslan possessed profound knowledge while the White Witch did not.

Comedians Abbott and Costello’s classic “Who’s on first” routine demonstrates the need for profound knowledge and exposes what can happen when one tries to meaningfully engage in a system without it.  In this timeless comedy routine, Bud Abbott plays the role of the manager of a baseball team who shares current players’ names with Lou Costello, whose character is a player new to the team.  Based on the premise that baseball players on the team have unique names – “Who” is the name of the first baseman, “What” plays second base, and “I Don’t Know” is at third – the routine relies on clever wordplay about which one of the actors (Abbott) possesses profound knowledge and the other (Costello) does not.  Here is brief excerpt from the beginning of the act:

Costello:  Well, I never met the guys, so you’ll have to tell me their names, and then I’ll know who’s playing on the team.

Abbott:  Oh, I’ll tell you their names, but you know strange as it may seem, they give these ball players nowadays, very peculiar names.

Costello:  You mean funny names?

Abbott:  Strange names, pet names. Like, Dizzy Dean, and…

Costello:  His brother Daffy?

Abbott:  Daffy Dean.

Costello:  And their French cousin.

Abbott:  French?

Costello:  Goofe’.

Abbott:  Goofe’ Dean, oh I see! Well let’s see, we have on the bags, we have Who’s on first, What’s on second, and I Don’t Know is on third.

Costello:  That’s what I want to find out.

Abbott:  I say, Who’s on first, What’s on second, and I Don’t Know’s on third.

Costello:  Are you the manager?

Abbott:  Yes.

Costello:  You going to be the coach too?

Abbott:  Yes.

Costello:  And you don’t  know the fellow’s names?

Abbott:  Well I should.

Costello:  Well then who is on first?

Abbott:  Yes.

Costello:  I mean the fellow’s name.

Abbott:  Who.

Costello:  The guy on first.

Abbott:  Who.

Costello:  The first baseman.

Abbott:  Who!

Costello:  The guy playing first base.

Abbott:  Who is on first.

Costello:  I’m asking you who’s on first!

Abbott:  That’s the man’s name.

(Who’s on First, n.d.)

Throughout the entire routine, with Abbott doing his best to share the unique names of the players on the team, Costello is in a constant state of frustrated confusion. However, toward the end of the routine, he believes he has finally caught on and attempts to “play the system.”  Yet, what we find is that Costello, recognizing a pattern in the banter, applies his “working knowledge” incorrectly, revealing once again his lack of deep understanding – aka profound knowledge:

Costello:  Now, the heavy hitter bunts the ball. When he bunts the ball, me being a good catcher, I want to throw the guy out at first base. So I pick up the ball and throw it to who?

Abbott:  Now that’s the first thing that you’ve said right.

Costello:  I don’t even know what I’m talking about!

Abbott:  Well that’s all you have to do!

Costello:  Is throw the ball to first base?

Abbott:  Yes.

Costello:  Now who’s got it?

Abbott:  Naturally.


Costello:  Look, if I throw the ball to first base, somebody’s got to get it. Now who has it?

Abbott:  Naturally.

Costello:  Who?

Abbott:  Naturally.

Costello:  Naturally?

Abbott:  Naturally.

Costello:  So I pick up the ball and throw it to Naturally?

Abbott:  No you don’t! You throw the ball to Who!

Costello:  Naturally.

Abbott:  That’s different.

Costello:  That’s what I said.

Abbott:  You’re not saying that.

Costello:  I throw the ball to Naturally?

Abbott:  You throw it to Who.

Costello:  Naturally.

Abbott:  That’s it.

Costello:  That’s what I said!

Abbott:  Listen, you ask me.

Costello:  I throw the ball to who?

Abbott:  Naturally.

Costello:  Now you ask me.

Abbott:  You throw the ball to Who?

Costello:  Naturally.

Abbott:  That’s it.

Costello:  Same as you!

(Who’s on First, n.d.)

During this exchange, Costello caught on to a pattern and came to believe the first baseman’s name is “Naturally” and although he believes he finally understands, the misapplication of his new yet incorrect insight reveals that nothing could be further from the truth. And, unfortunately, for the unknowing Costello, he never gains the profound knowledge necessary to fully understand what was going on with the baseball team.

I have enjoyed the “Who’s on First” routine many times since I first stumbled upon it in high school, and it has become a wonderful example of the consequences of not possessing the profound knowledge necessary to fully understand what is causing behaviors – or results – in any given situation.  Without this depth of understanding, actions taken will merely address observable, or surface behaviors/results/symptoms that may likely repeat themselves over and over again until root cause is identified and addressed. “Who’s on First” offers a superb lesson about how even looking one level below observable behaviors – recognizing patterns – does not necessarily result in or guarantee profound knowledge.  One must dig deeper.

When I think about the term “profound knowledge” of any sort, I think about knowledge that goes “beneath” that which we observe.  It is knowledge that equates to an understanding of what Dr. Stephen Covey referred to as “principles” in his book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.  Principles, from Dr. Covey’s perspective, are “deep, fundamental truths that have universal application.” (Covey, 1989, p. 35).  He wrote that they are both universal and timeless; that they produce predictable outcomes and are external to ourselves.  Further, he believed they are natural laws that operate with or without our understanding or acceptance and are “essentially unarguable because they self-evident” (p. 35). It would seem that if someone possessed profound knowledge about anything, they would understand the principles that undergird what I would refer to as their working or practical knowledge.

Author and motivational speaker Simon Sinek talks about the need to “start with why,” in other words, developing a compelling reason for doing something before moving to “what” and “how.” This holds true for educators; for without understanding the “why,” or possessing profound knowledge behind our practices, we may be forever caught in an endless cycle of “doing,” waiting for the next “silver bullet” to come around, something which nearly every educator I have ever talked with despises, yet ironically, also participates in, for it is the way in which the “system” seems to work.  Without developing a theory based on principles – or profound knowledge – on which to develop and base actions, we are unable to learn from either our mistakes or successes, for as Dr. Deming tells us, experience is not enough. “Without theory, experience has no meaning. Without theory, one has no questions to ask. Hence, without theory, there is no learning” (Deming, 2018, p. 70).

Educators, in my opinion and based on my 40 years of experience in the field, must possess profound knowledge if we are to ever reach what I refer to as the “escape velocity” required to break loose from the gravity of our current system. But what sort of profound knowledge? A few ideas: 1.) A grasp of how brain research, learning theory, and instructional practices work interdependently to achieve the aim of improving student learning (appreciation for a system);  2.) An understanding of how students and staff are motivated and how they respond to the change that is necessary for improvement (psychology); 3.) An understanding that no two children are the same and the ability to discern when differences in achievement results are caused by the environment (aka the system) versus when they are a result of something unique (variation); and 4.) The ability to construct new knowledge using rigorous strategies such as the plan-do-study-act learning/improvement cycle, and understand information is not knowledge and that knowledge depends on theory (theory of knowledge). In short, I believe a solid grounding in Dr. Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge would serve education and educators well. For when understood and applied, it can serve as the vehicle for transformation, transformation from a system well-designed 150 years ago to meet the needs of the time, to one which prepares students for a world yet to exist. Its understanding and implementation will result in classrooms, schools, and school districts where joy in learning, teaching, and leading can be achieved and maintained.

Dr. Buchanan is as right today as he was 26 years ago.  As educators, we really do “need to know something first” and I would like to imagine that Dr. Deming would agree. And while it is certainly important to possess content knowledge, skills and strategies relative to our profession, it is even more important – in fact crucial – that individually and collectively we engender and develop profound knowledge, lest we fall into the trap of never fully understanding that “Who,” rather than “Naturally,” plays first base.

For more information about how the System of Profound Knowledge can be applied in education and the Drake Continual Improvement Network, contact Dr. Doug Stilwell at doug.stilwell@drake.edu.


Baker, E. (2017). The Symphony of Profound Knowledge: W. Edwards Deming’s Score for Leading, Performing, and Living in Concert. iUniverse.

Covey, S. (1989). The seven habits of highly effective people: Powerful lessons in personal change. Simon & Schuster.

Deming, E. (2018). The new economics for industry, government, education. MIT Press.

Langley, G., Moen, R., Nolan, K., Nolan, T., Norman, C., Provost, L. (2009). The improvement guide: A practical approach to enhancing organizational performance. Jossey-Bass.

Lewis, C.S. (1950). The lion, the witch and the wardrobe. Geoffrey Bles.

Sinek, S. (2009). Start with why: How great leaders inspire everyone to take action. Penguin Group.

Who’s on First (n.d.). Baseball Almanac. Retrieved August 23, 2020 from https://www.baseball-almanac.com/humor4.shtml.

7 thoughts on “Who’s Got Profound Knowledge?”

  1. I enjoyed many portions of this piece. The ideas that were most profound to me were when Dr. Stilwell stated the following about results, “…consequences of not possessing the profound knowledge necessary to fully understand what is causing behaviors – or results – in any given situation. Without this depth of understanding, actions taken will merely address observable, or surface behaviors/results/symptoms that may likely repeat themselves over and over again until root cause is identified and addressed.” Dr. Stilwell goes on to say the same about patterns, “…how even looking one level below observable behaviors – recognizing patterns – does not necessarily result in or guarantee profound knowledge. One must dig deeper.” For me, I have growth to do in the deep work. This will require more sustained effort and commitment. Judging results and patterns is all too easy. What else can we understand and know about the why?

  2. While reading this, a few thoughts came to me. First, when relating profound knowledge to Narnia and the comedy skit, the idea of profound knowledge was simplified which helped me begin to understand it. Yes, the White Witch was very knowledgable about the deep magic, but did not have as much knowledge about it as Aslan. The same with the skit, one knew the team while the other did not have that knowledge and began guessing and tried to figure it out without the profound knowledge which led to an incorrect result.
    I thought about this in regards to my students. I notice sometimes in math, they begin guessing. They may not have profound knowledge of the concept so the guessing leads to an incorrect answer. If they had profound knowledge of let’s say the concept of multiplication, if they were struggling, they could do repeated addition, use a number they know and round, etc..
    The next thought I had was while reading through the paragraph in which theories were discussed. I instantly related this to the PDSA process. We need to know why something is happening, and use this to create a theory that will help us come up with a plan. To many times in my first year of teaching I found myself just trying out different things with no purpose or theory. Of course, as stated, I didn’t learn anything from them so it was just a vicious cycle of trying things with no theory, which led to results with no meaning.
    The connection of needing to know something first is very powerful as a future leader. I need to know something before making any decisions. I have to have a profound knowledge of things such as instruction, curriculum, how students learn, etc.. For if I don’t it will be a dangerous game of just trying things out.

  3. I really connected with the “Who’s on first” comedy routine. I felt like that was a simplistic way to describe the concept of “profound knowledge.” We can go into any profession feeling prepared, but that is only hitting the surface. When we have opportunities to learn in the profession, that is when we can really dig deep and start to develop that profound knowledge. Costello understood the rules of the game, but when talking with Abbott, he struggled to understand the players. A principal can go into the profession having a plan and ideas on how to improve the system, but that only goes so far. As a school leader, that leader must consider all the different moving parts of everyone involved and the different scenarios that might pop up year to year. Profound knowledge happens when a person takes in everything that is happening around them and continues to learn and work to find ways to improve it. A leader must take what they are experiencing, and it apply to the theories they have learned. When working in the educational field, we are teaching learners by modeling how to be life long learners.

  4. The idea to appreciate the system hits home for me the most! Before administrative courses, I would think of symptoms and ways to solve one issue. Over time, the system parasite has entered my brain and I have become enlightened to systems thinking. The idea of “knowing something” directly relates to this idea of systems. By studying the system, you see what the system can teach you. What can be evaluated through the system can make you really sit and think about how everything interacts together.

  5. Lindsay Swartzendruber

    I connected most with your comment that stated, “(educators) must possess profound knowledge if we are to ever reach what I refer to as the “escape velocity” required to break loose from the gravity of our current system.” The longer I am in education, the more inequities I see with the system, as a whole. Many times, educators are satisfied with the “way we have always done things.” I especially notice this when we are in conversation about students who don’t naturally benefit from our archaic system. When we talk about block scheduling, or “learning support classes,” or even the language we use when talking about students. The answer is often, “we always have.” When we are able to widen our circle and see beyond the status quo, we are able to think creatively about how we are providing supports to all students. This “profound knowledge” allows us to create an educational system that fits the child, instead of the other way around.

  6. The idea of a system of profound knowledge is insightful and as a student at Drake has transformed by own thoughts and thinking within my system. Through the system of profound knowledge, this gives the opportunity to be a part of an organization that is a true learning organization. Currently we do not see all educational organizations as learning organizations. Without the chance to continue to improve these organizations will not be the true learning organizations. The quote within this blog “Without theory, experience has no meaning. Without theory, one has no questions to ask. Hence, without theory, there is no learning” speaks a great deal to what we are capable of as a system of profound knowledge. If we have a theory we are able to experiment and be the continual., life-long learners we strive to be. As being that lead learner this will give an opportunity to model the learning we do and to gain a deeper knowledge or profound knowledge.

    1. That quote you mentioned is so powerful! It reminds me to always be curious and to not settle. It reminds me to always ask questions such as why are things they way they are? How could this be better etc.? Relating it back to a PDSA, a PDSA forces you to come up with a theory and test it. It allows for error if your theory was wrong, and the process encourages you to dig deeper into root causes.

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