Thursday, June 4, 2009

Are fossilized processes impacting your business?

I recently stumbled upon an article that used an interesting history lesson to highlight the danger of institutional inertia in the protection of the status quo and it was a lesson that delivered a very relevant message for today’s thinking business manager.

The US standard railroad gauge (distance between the rails) is 4 feet, 8.5 inches. That's an exceedingly odd number but that's the way they built them in England, and English expatriates built the US railroads. So 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's the gauge they used. Why? Because the people who built the tramways used the same jigs and tools that they used for building wagons, which used that 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 England for their legions and 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 all made for Imperial Rome the wheel spacing was consistent with the spacing between the ruts determined by the width of the rear end of two war horses!

Therefore the United States standard railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches is derived from the original specifications of an ancient roman war chariot.
Now fast forward to today and the Space Shuttle. When you see a Space Shuttle sitting on its launch pad, there are two big booster rockets attached to the sides of the main fuel tank. These are solid rocket boosters (SRB's). The SRB's are made by Thiokol at their factory in Utah . The engineers who designed the SRB's would have preferred to make them a bit fatter, but the SRB's 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, and the SRB's had to fit through that tunnel. The tunnel is slightly wider than the railroad track, and the railroad track, as you now know, is about as wide as two horses' behinds. So, a major Space Shuttle design feature of what is arguably the world's most advanced transportation system was determined over two thousand years ago by the width of the back end of a horse.

So are there any fossilized processes influencing your business? While they may not have evolved because of an anatomical feature of a horse there continuance could however inspire a similar comparison.

Perhaps it is time to take that step back and audit your business (or personal) practices and get rid of any inefficient and fossilized practices.

No comments: