Are your processes haunted by the ghosts of Christmas past?

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Jeff Cole

We’ll get to those ghosts in a moment, but first a quick commercial for benchmarking. If anyone ever offers you a job doing benchmarking, grab hold of it with both hands, hang on and never let go. Benchmarking can be great fun.

So what is it? It involves looking outside your industry to see who is doing something conceptually similar to you, so you can bring those methods back and apply them to your operation. For example: In the 1980’s when FedEx wanted to get faster – who do you think they studied? Domino’s Pizza of course! Back in the day, Domino’s offer was "30 minutes or Free" on delivery. FedEx thought – conceptually, we’re both trying to do the same thing – get a package from point A to B as fast as possible!

Born to roam? Get rid of old habits to set you free!

Who is doing something conceptually similar to you but outside your industry? Who might you study?

With that out of the way, let me ask you this: What can your organization learn from the Circus? That’s right the circus, and no, I have no references to ringmasters or clowns. I do, however, have a very important reference to the elephant you’ll see at many circuses.

The story goes this way – one day the circus was in town and a man wandering through was somewhat startled to see a large elephant standing there with no handler and nothing more to secure the elephant than a string tied around its leg to a tent post. The elephant could simply walk away – the string in no way was secure enough to retain an animal of that proportion. When the man expressed his concern, he was told not to worry. The elephant was going nowhere and the string was a common practice. As it turns out, when the elephant was very tiny, its handlers used a stout rope to secure the animal’s leg to a post. It could tug all day, but it was going nowhere. As it grew, that lesson became so engrained, that as an adult, simply tying the string to its leg was enough to keep it from trying to wander about.

So what? Many organizations that have been around for a while have rules or even entire cultures that are much like that string. Over the years in employees’ minds, rules and restrictions have built up and solidified. Much of the process inefficiencies we see in organizations today are in part caused by "ghosts of Christmases past" haunting the enterprise.

How many times have you asked "Why do we do it this way?" only to be told that because something went wrong one time back in 1996, an extra check, inspection, or signature was embedded into a process? Twice, in 1982 we were burnt because we couldn’t find a particular document – and ever since we always make an extra copy and put it in Bob’s office. Before he retired, Stan always required us to keep some "just in case" inventory stored out back. We never used it, but he slept better at night. You get the picture.

2014 is around the corner – it’s time to stop the madness. Shine a bright light on those ghosts and vanish them from your processes. They can hold back and sometimes totally derail change efforts. Realize that it is a perfectly acceptable and often needed practice to question "Why?" we do things the way we do. Was the procedure well thought-through and designed to be as efficient and effective as possible? Or is it a remnant from days gone by?

Perhaps a shoot-from-the-hip reaction to a situation no longer even possible in the organization today? Give your organization a well-deserved holiday gift by asking "Why?" starting today.