A Tale of Five Monkeys OR We’ve always done it that way!

There is a story floating around, one that I call A Tale of Five Monkeys.  Here is the story.

Start with a cage containing five monkeys. Inside the cage, hang a banana on a string and place a set of stairs under it. Before long, a monkey will go to the stairs and start to climb towards the banana. As soon as he touches the stairs, spray all of the other monkeys with cold water. After a while, another monkey makes an attempt with the same result – the other monkeys are sprayed with cold water. Pretty soon, when another monkey tries, the other monkeys will try to prevent it.

Now, put away the cold water. Remove one monkey from the cage and replace it with a new one. The new monkey sees the banana and goes to climb the stairs. To his horror, the other monkeys attack him. After another attempt, he knows if he touches the stairs he will be assaulted.

Next, remove another of the original five monkeys and replace it with a new one. The newcomer goes to the stairs and is attacked. The previous newcomer joins in the punishment with enthusiasm! Then, replace a third monkey with a new one, then a fourth, then the fifth. Every time a newcomer takes to the stairs, he is attacked.

 Most of the monkeys beating him have no idea why they were not permitted to climb the stairs or why they are participating in the beating of the newest monkey. After replacing all the original monkeys, none of the remaining monkeys has ever been sprayed with cold water. Still, no monkey ever again approaches the stairs.

As a business consultant and an outsider, I frequently see client business processes that are not needed or are cumbersome and ineffective. Typically, when I asked why it’s done that way, I either get a blank stare or the person says, “That’s the way I was trained”, or the always famous, “We’ve always done it that way”.

While I fully recognize that I have the benefit of coming in from the outside and looking at the process with a fresh set of eyes, there is no reason that management cannot take a look at the processes and determine if they are the most efficient way to handle the work, or if they are even necessary. Is there a way that we could streamline that process? Is there a way that we could automate the process, or at least part of it? Even if the process is valid, are the right people performing the process?  Examine the process as it passes through the hands of each person or department. Is what they are doing necessary?

If you need to, get someone from the outside to take a look at your processes.  A fresh look from someone from the outside can provide valuable perspective.

Yes, I realize this is a huge task. There is the old riddle, “How do you eat an elephant”? The answer of course is one bite at time.  I take the approach of examining processes that are involved in a specific area. For example, follow the process of a customer placing an order (via phone, Internet, e-mail or in person) and follow it from the beginning through the end (shipping the product, and following up with the customer to assure customer satisfaction).

Ask yourself, is the way we are doing these tasks working, is it the most efficient way, is there a way we could make this process easier or faster?

I close with an example. Several years ago I ordered a computer, over the Internet, from IBM. Using their online configuration tool, I selected the components of my new computer. I printed the list of my configuration and place the order. When the computer arrived, it was missing half the RAM that I ordered. I examined the shipping documents and found that sure enough, it specified half the RAM that I had ordered. So, they built the computer according to the documentation they had instead of a way I ordered it. How could this happen? I called IBM, and eventually got the representative to admit that the order information I created online does not go directly to the shop where the computers are assembled. Instead, my order is printed out and then someone retypes my order into the computer system used by the shop where the computers are assembled. Clearly, this redundant activity caused an error in the order.

Does your business have processes like this?

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