Tuesday, May 19, 2009

That’s the Way It’s Always Been Done

Start by trying to open a banana from the stem end. Place banana aside at podium

I guess lunch should probably wait until after I speak, shouldn't it? But the banana does remind me of an experiment that was done with monkeys.

5 Monkeys were placed in a cage. A banana was dangled from the top of the cage and a set of stairs was placed underneath it. As soon as a monkey went to get the banana the other monkeys were all sprayed with cold water. This was done every time a monkey went for a banana, all of the others were sprayed with cold water. It didn't take long for the monkey's to physically restrain any monkey that went for the banana.

Then one of the original monkeys was removed and a new one placed in the cage. The new one, seeing the banana, went after it and was immediately attacked and restrained by the others.

Again, one of the original monkeys was removed and replaced with a new monkey. When it went for the banana all of the monkeys, including the other new one, attacked and restrained the monkey.

This was repeated until all of the original monkeys had been replaced. So now you have 5 monkeys, none of which have ever suffered being sprayed with cold water, all afraid to go get the banana because they know they would be attacked and stopped by the others. Why? Well, because that's the way it's always been done.

Mr. Toastmaster, fellow toastmasters and guests.

We are in a time of constant change. If you are not constantly looking at and modifying and changing your processes and moving them forward, you are falling behind.

General Shinseki , former US Army Chief of Staff said, "If you don't like change, you're going to like irrelevance even less."

How many of you have heard these phrases:

If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Let's stick with what works.

Let's not reinvent the wheel.

It's change for the sake of change.

And, of course,

That's the way it's always been done.

These phrases can kill your organization. Technology is changing. New and better methods are discovered every day. If you are still using the same process you were using 3 years ago, I'm sorry, but it's broke.

If we never invented the wheel our cars would still be rolling around on round rocks.

Am I saying we need to change things for the sake of changing things? You're damn right I am!!

But don't throw everything out. It was the right thing at one point. Look at what works, learn from it, improve other things and evolve your process and do it continually. If you don't, your competitor will. And eventually, you'll become irrelevant.

"That's the way it's always been done."

The US standard railroad gauge (distance between the rails) is 4 feet, 8.5 inches. That is an exceedingly odd number. Why was that gauge used? Because that is the way they built them in England, and English expatriates built the US railroads. Why did the English build them like that?

Because the first rail lines were built by the same people who built the pre railroad tramways, and that is the gauge they used. Why did "they" use that gauge then? Because the people who built the tramways used the same jigs and tools that they used for building wagons, which used the same wheel spacing.

Why did the wagons have that particular odd wheel spacing? Well, if they tried to use any other spacing, the wagon wheels would break on some of the old, long distance roads in England, because that's the spacing of the wheel ruts. So who built those old rutted roads? Imperial Rome built the first long distance roads in Europe (and England) for their legions. The roads have been used ever since.

And the ruts in the roads? Roman war chariots formed the initial ruts, which everyone else had to match for fear of destroying their wagon wheels. Since the chariots were made for (or by) Imperial Rome, they all had the same wheel spacing. The United States standard railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches is derived from the original specification for an Imperial Roman war chariot.

Specifications and bureaucracies live forever. So the next time you are handed a specification and wonder what horses butt came up with it, you may be exactly right. This is because the Imperial Roman war chariots were made just wide enough to accommodate the back ends of two war-horses.

Now, the twist to the story...

There is an interesting extension to the story about railroad gauges and horses' behinds. When we see a Space Shuttle sitting on its launch pad, there are two big booster rockets attached to the sides of the main tank. These are solid rocket boosters, or SRBs. "Thiokol" makes the SRBs at their factory at Utah. The engineers who designed the SRBs might have preferred to make them a bit fatter, but the SRBs had to be shipped by train from the factory to the launch site. The railroad line from the factory happens to run through a tunnel in the mountains. The SRBs had to fit through that tunnel. The tunnel is slightly wider than the railroad track, and the railroad track is about as wide as two horses' behinds. So, a major design feature of what is arguably the world's most advanced transportation system was determined over two thousand years ago by a horse's ass.

Just because you learned one way to do something does not mean it's the best way or the only way. If you let go of all of those preconceived notions and keep your eyes open for a better way to do something, you might just find something that works.

Close with how to open a banana from the other end.

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