Why We Do Things This Way

By Jon Miller Updated on September 7th, 2015

newspaperI have spent much of my career in pursuit of answers to the question, “Why do you do things this way?” When I am getting to know a client, either an individual leader for coaching purposes or an business for the purpose of designing or modifying a lean transformation plan, I make a point to not only find out how they do things but also why. The answers are always interesting, sometimes a bit troubling. People’s reaction when the reason why is exposed varies and is often quite telling in itself.

You may be surprised how often the answer is “that’s how we’ve always done it” or “the whole industry does it this way” or even, “I know what you’re getting at, and we tried it the other [more effective] way and it didn’t work for us.” Often it is simply “Gee, I don’t know.” Why do we work in batch? We may do so because we lack a better model. We don’t know any better. Or we may do it because textbooks tell us this is the most efficient way. Or it may be because that’s how orders are printed and brought to the workplace, for the localized convenience of the order printing process. Batching may be a relic of the early days of industrialization and division of labor but it can also be caused by our sophisticated modern high-speed machinery overproducing the rest of the factory. The pursuit of the truth behind “why we do things this way” does not automatically mean that our current methods are wrong, only that we won’t know if they are or not until we answer this question.

The next time you need to open up the minds of a leadership team, a project team or a natural work team  in the pursuit of innovation, on-time performance or simple and small improvements, these illustrations may help people to start by questioning why we do things this way.

Labor Day: Why does the U.S. celebrate Labor Day in September?

The rest of the world celebrates Labor Day on May 1st. Does the U.S. choose not to celebrate it in May to avoid association the holiday with May day socialist and anarchist principles of labor organizing and rebelling against the capitalist system? In fact, U.S. President Grover Cleveland feared that celebrating Labor Day on May 1 would become an opportunity for people to commemorate the Haymarket Massacre in Chicago on May 4, 1886 so he established the Labor Day in September in 1887. Who remembers the Haymarket Massacre today? And the September Labor Day notwithstanding, anarchists still march and riot in the streets of Seattle in May… Even more ironically, the day intended to appreciate and celebrate labor and contributions of the working class ends up doing the opposite in some cases. In the U.S. retail employment represents 24% of jobs. Labor Day is a big shopping and tourism weekend, resulting in open stores and even extended hours. For these retail laborers, it is hardly a day to celebrate.

Christmas ham: Why do we cut off the ends of the ham before putting it in the oven?

A friend of mine told me a story from when he was young and became curious why his mother cut off a bit of one end of the ham before baking it at Christmas. He asked. She did not know, but thought there must be a good reason because her mother always did it that way. My friend asked his grandmother the next time he next saw her. His grandmother said, “Oh, that’s because we had a small oven in those days and the whole ham wouldn’t fit, so we cut off a bit of one end in order to bake it.” My friend’s mother had an oven that was quite large enough for the whole ham…

Broadsheets: Why are newspapers printed on big floppy sheets of paper?

Newspapers are printed on sheets of paper many times larger than magazines or books. This requires that they are folded, rolled into a bundle, and bound by a rubber band for transport. Even to read an article the size of an A4 sheet, it is necessary to open the whole thing with both arms and wrestle with the paper blanket. Newspapers were not designed to be read on airplanes. Why are newspapers so big and floppy? Have they always been that way? Actually the practice of large newspapers pages, or “broadsheets” started in London in 1712. The English government began taxing newspapers based on the number of pages they printed. What did the newspapers do? They printed on larger sheets of paper to reduce the number of sheets required in order minimize the tax.  This tax law was abolished in 1855. Newspapers kept on printing, folding, stacking, and transporting on these broadsheets.

These stories are interesting because they allow us to reflect on our own situation and ways of working. We can draw general lessons from how current dogma, standards and beliefs are rooted in reasons that are of little or no consequence to today’s reality, and sometimes even counter to it. Many business practices were started for perfectly good reasons at the time. People continue doing it this way even as circumstances change. How well do you understand the reasons “why we do things this way”? Pursuing answers to this, we can find ways to do things a better way.

Why do we set the length of a mile at 5280 feet? Something to do with the size of an ancient kind’s foot, or the geometric harmony of proportions between the heavenly spheres, depending on who you ask. Some answers to the question, “Why do we do things this way” are harder to find than others.

  1. Hiroaki Kokudai

    September 7, 2015 - 2:51 pm

    Every Lean leader must be a curious person. I am too. This keeps human kind moving.
    All the best, from

    Kokudai, Hiroaki, Brazil

    • Jon Miller

      September 7, 2015 - 11:36 pm

      Nice to hear from you again Hiroaki. Hope you are well.

  2. Michele, New York

    September 7, 2015 - 9:41 pm

    Enjoyed this article! Examples reminded me of the QWERTY keyboard layout – important to prevent typewriter keys from jamming up – but still the way we type, why??? Need to remind ourselves to never stop questioning, never stop re-validating if all our “given/fixed” facts still apply, and if there isn’t a better way now, that might not have existed yesterday.

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