Holding the horses

This week I find myself in Des Moines, Iowa teaching a Green Belt class to a fantastic group of students. One student shared a case study that is too good not to publish for you. It is the story of a British army officer who, in the early 1940s, hired a time and motion expert to study artillery firing drills used for coastal defenses. The officer was attempting to find procedures that could be cut to reduce delays between firing times, thus increasing the fire rate. What they found remains a lesson we can still learn from today.
When the firing procedures were demonstrated one thing appeared odd, moments before firing two members of the gun crew ceased all activity, moved away from the cannon, and came to attention. The firing crew explained that is how they were trained. The officer contacted an old artillery colonel in an attempt to solve this mystery. When shown the pictures the old colonel was initially puzzled, then it hit him; “Ahhh, they are holding the horses.” he said.
It turns out many years earlier the artillery cannons were pulled to the battlefield by horses. The blast of the cannon spooked the horses and they would run away. Two gun crew members had to hold the horses before the cannon was fired to prevent horses from running away. The horses are long gone but the procedure remains unchanged. This classic story highlights how processes can endure long after they are relevant.
Is your organization still “holding the horses”?
A 2008 Harvard Business Review article called “How best to divest” recommends that leaders invest the same amount of energy in divestiture as they do investments. By letting go of outdated processes we find organizations are in a better position to accomplish the tasks that actually matter. As Lean Six Sigma professionals most of our Kaizen efforts are focused on eliminating the unnecessary, thereby freeing up precious time for the necessary.
So often there is a feeling of “do more with less”, maybe we should “do less with less”. Less time holding the horses.
Thanks for reading and see you in the Gemba, Erik