The following passage is drawn from Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It is a wonderful book, sort of to design and systems thinking what The Goal is to process and stochastics (making it accessable in lay manager terms). At any rate, the title of this post indicates the discussion I’d like to prompt, about assumptions.

I love the entirety of the following passage, but have trimmed it down a bit to give you enough of the flavor to get the point:

… I remember Chris and I were on a trip to Canada a few years ago, got about 130 miles and were caught in a warm front of which we had plenty of warning but which we didn’t understand. The whole experience was kind of dumb and sad.

We were on a little six-and-one-half-horsepower cycle, way overloaded with luggage and way underloaded with common sense. [...] By ten o’clock the sky was so dark all the cars had their headlights on. And then it really came down.

We were wearing the ponchos which had served as a tent the night before. Now they spread out like sails and slowed our speed to thirty miles an hour wide open. The water on the road became two inches deep. [..]

The cycle slowed down to twenty-five, then twenty. Then it started missing, coughing and popping and sputtering until, barely moving at five or six miles an hour, we found an old run-down filling station by some cutover timberland and pulled in.

At the time, like John, I hadn’t bothered to learn much about motorcycle maintenance. I remember holding my poncho over my head to keep the rain from the tank and rocking the cycle between my legs. Gas seemed to be sloshing around inside. I looked at the plugs, and looked at the points, and looked at the carburetor, and pumped the kick starter until I was exhausted.

We went into the filling station, which was also a combination beer joint and restaurant, and had a meal of burned-up steak. Then I went back out and tried it again. Chris kept asking questions that started to anger me because he didn’t see how serious it was. Finally I saw it was no use, gave it up, and my anger at him disappeared. I explained to him as carefully as I could that it was all over. We weren’t going anywhere by cycle on this vacation. Chris suggested things to do like check the gas, which I had done, and find a mechanic. But there weren’t any mechanics. Just cutover pine trees and brush and rain.

I sat in the grass with him at the shoulder of the road, defeated, staring into the trees and underbrush. I answered all of Chris’s questions patiently and in time they became fewer and fewer. And then Chris finally understood that our cycle trip was really over and began to cry. He was eight then, I think.

We hitchhiked back to our own city and rented a trailer and put it on our car and came up and got the cycle, and hauled it back to our own city and then started out all over again by car. But it wasn’t the same. And we didn’t really enjoy ourselves much.

Two weeks after the vacation was over, one evening after work, I removed the carburetor to see what was wrong but still couldn’t find anything. To clean off the grease before replacing it, I turned the stopcock on the tank for a little gas. Nothing came out. The tank was out of gas. I couldn’t believe it. I can still hardly believe it.

I have kicked myself mentally a hundred times for that stupidity and don’t think I’ll ever really, finally get over it. Evidently what I saw sloshing around was gas in the reserve tank which I had never turned on. I didn’t check it carefully because I assumed the rain had caused the engine failure. I didn’t understand then how foolish quick assumptions like that are. Now we are on a twenty-eight-horse machine and I take the maintenance of it very seriously.

Pirsig, Robert M. (2009-04-10). Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (pp. 20-21). HarperTorch. Kindle Edition.

Discussion: What do we learn (in particular about assumptions) from this story? And what other stories help illustrate how assumptions shape what we do, including our system design decisions and outcomes.