I heard this story a few years ago and have no clue who the folks involved are, but recognize the value of the lesson here…
In the late 1980s a graduate student studying military training spent a day observing an artillery crew going through crew drills. She spent hours watching the crew prepare, load and fire their cannon. The crew followed each and every step perfectly, showing exceptional discipline and training. The graduate student mapped the purpose of each step to her understanding of the gun, and the needs of the crew. Every step made sense to her… the swabbing of the barrel, the loading of the explosive charges, the positioning of every soldier on the crew… it all made sense. All of the movements were economical, purposeful, and important. All but one.
Two soldiers, upon completing their assigned task, ran quickly to the rear of the cannon and stood at attention, holding their hands out in front of them at a 90 degree angle. They remained in this position until the gun was fired. After the fire mission was complete, the two soldiers dropped their hands to their sides and ran back to the side of the gun and began to prepare it for the next mission.
This action puzzled the grad student, who could make sense of every other movement in the crew’s choreography. Why in the world would these two run to the rear of the gun and just stand there with their empty hands held aloft?
She inquired with the crew who admitted that they weren’t really sure why they were doing it. “It’s in the manual, ma’am.”
Sure enough, it was in the manual. With no explanation. Nobody from the crew knew why that procedure was there. She checked with the local command. They didn’t know. Their headquarters didn’t know either. Nobody knew why these crewmembers had to stand there while the gun was fired. They just knew that it was how it was done. She finally went to the training center library where the old manuals were archived. It took some time, but she finally solved this little mystery.
She learned that the towed artillery in use in the 1980s wasn’t all that different from the towed artillery that had been in service for many years, and that the procedures hadn’t been updated with the changes in technology. While this artillery piece was now towed by an armored vehicle, its predecessor had been towed into action by a team of horses. That was where the firing procedures had been developed. The two soldiers standing in the rear of the cannon had the responsibility of holding the reins of the horses so they wouldn’t bolt when the cannon was fired. Somehow this step in the procedure had remained in the battle drill even though horse-drawn artillery was superseded in World War II, over 40 years before.
Look, I don’t know if this is urban legend and myth, or if this actually happened. What I do know is that I have seen too many organizations go through bureaucratic steps that are the equivalent of holding non-existent horses during the firing of a cannon. Too often rules, regulations, and procedures become irrelevant by changes in the environment or technology and organizations are incapable of removing those steps. We will hold up files for outdated and unnecessary forms, require uninterested offices to be consulted, check and double-check the correctness of the procedure, process irrelevant TPS reports, and add thousands of man-hours to our processes for the same value that two guys holding their hands in the air provide to our gun crew efficiency.
A few years ago I worked for one of the best general officers the Army has produced in recent years. Soon after taking over the installation he was receiving a briefing from one of his subordinate leaders. This leader stated that a certain training procedure would take him a few weeks to set up.
General: Why should that take a few weeks? Just go do it.
Colonel: Ummm… it will take a few weeks to comply with all the requirements.
General: What requirements?
Colonel: It’s all in the Standard Operating Procedures. (He went on to explain the multiple steps required)
General: Well that sounds stupid. Whose policy is that?
Colonel: Ummmm… It’s yours, sir.
General: Well, if it’s stupid it isn’t my policy. In fact, I want the rest of the staff to hear this: I want to start a campaign right now. Let’s call it “Stamp Out Stupid.”
Over the next few months that general required his staff to review every procedure and policy that was under his authority and he abolished tons of outdated stuff. He was extremely effective, and the post and unit is far better off because of him.
How is your organization doing? How many irrelevant procedures do you or your staff perpetuate simply because it is in the manual or required by some outdated regulation? How often do you review the policies under your authority? How many might not be relevant?
I believe every organization should undergo a “Stamp Out Stupid” campaign. It doesn’t cost much, but the payoffs can be huge. Imagine how much more you could get done if your folks weren’t spending their time holding imaginary horses.