Kayaking: How Rationale Aids Experience

July 2, 2009 — Posted by Al Shalloway

I have been espousing an understanding of principles for quite some time now. While I do believe that one typically does not truly understand something until they do it, I believe we often look in the wrong area for things and that being told what to look at (in the form of principles or rationale) can steer us into better action quickly.  I recently had an experience of not being told principles, eventually learning things myself, and realized I would have learned a lot faster had I been told them - so I thought this might be a good illustration of my point.

I am reasonably physically capable middle-aged guy. When I was in my 20's and 30's, I was fairly athletic, playing football and basketball quite a lot (and was pretty good at them). I've also enjoyed boating and have been doing that more recently. I've been on a recent activity kick and started kayaking. Up until a week or so ago, I'd probably only kayaked 2 or 3 times in my life (canoeing and sailing had been more of what I did). In other words, I'm somewhat athletic, but not in as good shape as I used to be and not an expert at Kayaks but understand the basics of boating.

Anyway, last Friday I went out with my 19 year old son Bryan and we tandem kayaked (that's 2 people in one kayak) for an hour on Green Lake near my home.  Green lake is a relatively small lake where it's real easy to get around.  Smooth water, very little wind.  My son was in the front, I was in the back. Now I'd seen tandem kayakers go at it and noticed how they always stroked on the same side as each other, alternating left and right.  I figured this was so their paddles wouldn't hit each other.  We sometimes did this, sometimes didn't.  I could keep form hitting my son's paddle and we weren't in any hurry so we never really went very hard.

Then, a couple of days later, I tandem kayaked with my daughter (in her 20's).  But this time we were on Orcas Island (still there).  This was the first time my daughter had tandemed too, although she had some experience as a solo kayaker.  We had a great time and again I was in the back.  Sometimes we'd stroke together sometimes not. Again, we weren't pushing anything and the water was very calm again.

Then yesterday, I went out with my daughter again, only this time, she sat in the back - figured it was nice to try something different.  The weather was a bit windy that day and there was a strong current in a few places.  While we weren't in any hurry, the current made paddling take more effort.   Most of the time my daughter would paddle, but at times, she'd get tired I'd paddle by myself.  When she did paddle, we weren't usually in synch - Lisa would usually just paddle, as I had done the day before, without paying any attention to the person's in the front timing. After about 45 minutes (we knew we were going out for only an hour), something interesting happened.  We had been putting more energy than we had earlier into our paddling to cross the bay.  It was windy and a bit cold and it seemed fun to have a strong effort. I was digging a little harder and could feel how I was pulling the boat across the water with my paddle.  This took a fair amount of energy.  But about this time Lisa started paddling in tandem with me - actually, somewhat by accident.  The experience changed dramatically.  The boat all of a sudden took what seemed like only half the energy to move forward faster than before. 

The last 15 minutes we paddled like this and it was so cool.  What felt like half the energy was getting us more speed.  I realized that my thinking before was that Lisa and I were just independent motors.  We were putting out energy with our arms, moving the kayak through the water.  The way we worked together wouldn't make any difference.  Physics tells you that for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction - so the timing shouldn't matter.  But then what happened? On reflection I realized that by paddling together, we could reach the same speed as before  with less energy because we were pulling on the boat together. It was like lifting half of a heavy bag with someone - it takes less energy.  Lowering the energy level of each stroke because we were pulling the boat together, meant we got less tired.

To be honest, I am not exactly sure of the physics. I am guessing we coasted better between strokes (now both of us together each second) than when we were - between us - touching the water 2 times a second.  The point is, I had been using the wrong rationale for paddling.  Had I been told we would be more efficient in the use of our energy by tandem paddling, we would have learned how to do it much earlier.

So what's my point?  Had someone talked to me about tandem kayaking and said something like: "While you may not understand the physics of it, but stroking together on the same side will work better than stroking individually. You'll get more speed for the same energy - or the same speed for less energy."  In other words, while you may not get an actual experience of things until you do it - and therefore you real understanding will be lacking - you can accelerate your experience by being told the principles or rules of what is going on.

And why is this on a software blog?  Because understanding Lean principles can be very helpful in people trying to learn / create new practices for themselves and their teams.  Having to figure out from the experience alone is not as good as understanding why things work the way they do.  Then, when you experience it , you truly know it.  Lean has (at least) two major areas of looking at something different than many people do: 1 - look to the system for errors, 2 - pay attention to time, not how productive (busy) people are.

Alan Shallwoway
CEO, Net Objectives
Achieving Enterprise and Team Agility



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About the author | Al Shalloway

Al Shalloway is the founder and CEO of Net Objectives. With 45 years of experience, Al is an industry thought leader in Lean, Kanban, product portfolio management, Scrum and agile design. He helps companies transition to Lean and Agile methods enterprise-wide as well teaches courses in these areas.


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