As a business owner I can tell you that there are few words that make me cringe more than these six: “That’s how we’ve always done it …”
The success of any business depends on the people who make up their team. As such, each organization is subject to both positive and negative tendencies inherent in human nature. A sense of team spirit and belonging, our propensity for creativity and innovation, and the desire for personal excellence are all factors that drive us toward ever greater heights of excellence, fulfillment and self-actualization. When each member of a team pulls in this direction, invariably the team wins.
But what of our negative tendencies? What happens when we give in to conformity, or resist change for fear of the unknown, or settle for less to stay within our comfort zone? What happens when a seemingly uninterested team member resorts to the easy excuse, “That’s how I’ve always done it”? The effects of such a compromising attitude could be devastating to the organization, and the limitations it can place on your success is worthy of serious consideration.
How well do you handle changes in your business or industry? Are you an agile leader — able to adjust and respond to the changing needs of your customers? Or do you resist change at the expense of your business?
What about your team? Do they accept change when needed or do they resist it? Do they dare to think outside the box to find solutions, or are they limited by the physical constraints and size of their “cubicle” (or as blogger Kevin Nixon refers to it, “the prison where creativity goes to die”)?
If you don’t think that a pervasive attitude of conformity and resistance to change is detrimental to the success of your business, think again. Consider these (admittedly) trivial facts:
The U.S. Standard Railroad Gauge (distance between rails) is 4 feet, 8.5 inches. That’s an exceedingly odd dimension. Why was that gauge used? Because that’s the way they built them in England… and English expatriates built the U.S. railroads.
Why did the English build them using that dimension? Because the first rail lines were built by the same people who built the pre-railroad tramways… and that was the gauge they used.
Why that gauge? Because the people who built the tramways used the same jigs that were used for building wagons, which had a wheel spacing of 4 feet, 8.5 inches.
Why did wagons have that particularly odd wheel spacing? Because if they tried to use any other spacing, the wagon wheels would break off because of the existing wheel ruts in the roads.
So who built the old rutted roads? Imperial Rome built the first long-distance roads in England for their legions. 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 Imperial Rome, they were all alike in the matter of wheel spacing.
So, the United States standard railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches, is derived from the original specifications for an Imperial Roman war chariot and Imperial Roman war chariots were made just wide enough to accommodate the back end of two war horses.
What does this have to do with business? Here’s the twist to the story... For years, NASA’s space shuttle program utilized two big booster rockets attached to the sides of the main fuel tank. These were solid rocket boosters manufactured by Thiokol Propulsion at their factory in Utah.
The engineers who designed the boosters could have made them more efficient by making them wider, but they 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. Hence, the boosters had to fit through that tunnel. So, a major design feature of the Space Shuttle, which was arguably the world’s most advanced transportation system of its time, was determined not by the latest optimal design criteria, but by the width of a horse’s rear.
From horse-drawn war chariots and trains to commercial human space flight – innovation and change are at the center of every major development in human history. Think of ways to optimize your designs, your processes, and your products. Go outside the box and challenge every standard and rule that might limit your ability to improve your quality and service. Don’t resist it. Make positive change happen.
Manny García-Tuñón is president of Lemartec, an international design-build firm headquartered in Miami.