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Continuously Improving “The Way We’ve Always Done It”

My youngest daughter is in the 1st grade, and she recently did a biography report on Jane Goodall, the world-renowned primatologist expert. As part of the research I helped her with, I came across a primatology example that helps signify the benefits the a continuous improvement program. It highlights the mentality of “the way we’ve always done it” and is loosely based on research performed in the 1960s on a group of monkeys by G. R. Stephenson, though it’s more of a fictitious fable. The story is popular on the internet and was even featured in the 1990 movie ‘The Contender’ in which the actor Jeff Bridges illustrates this mentality.

The Story of 5 Monkeys and a Ladder

Five monkeys are placed inside a cage. Inside the cage, bananas hang on a string and are placed at the top of a ladder. Before long, a monkey will go to the ladder and climb toward the banana. As soon as the monkey touches the bananas, all the monkeys are sprayed with cold water. After a while, another monkey tries with the same result. Pretty soon, when another monkey tries to climb the ladder, the other monkeys will try to prevent it.

Then the cold water is turned off completely, and one monkey is removed from the cage and replaced with a new monkey. The new monkey sees the banana and attempts to climb the ladder. To its shock, all the other monkeys assault him. After another attempt and attack, the monkey knows not to climb the ladder for fear of an assault.

Next, another of the original five monkeys is removed and replaced with a new one. The newcomer goes to the ladder and is attacked. The previous newcomer takes part in the punishment with enthusiasm, because it is now part of the ‘team’ and has learned the rules. This continues until each of the original monkeys have been replaced, and none of the remaining monkeys were ever sprayed with water. These monkeys have no idea why they were not permitted to climb the ladder, nor do they know why they are participating in the beating of the newer monkeys.

Nevertheless, not one of the monkeys will try to climb the ladder for the banana. If they could talk, they would simply say, “We’ve always done it that way.”

Challenging the Status Quo

At Keller Logistics Group, we have a culture rooted deep in continuous improvement across all of our affiliates which supports our Lean Logistics initiatives. Lean Logistics can be described as, “a process to identify and eliminate waste of time, effort, and material from the supply chain to increase efficiency.” In short, it focuses on removing wasteful processes, touch points and packaging.

One of the ways we use continuous improvement methodologies is by taking a deep look at the methodology behind our current processes and instilling a mentality into our employees that “The way we’ve always done it” doesn’t have to be the the way it’s done moving forward.

By focusing on giving employees plenty of opportunity to explore improvement ideas or make suggestions on how to streamline current processes, we continually remove waste throughout our customers’ supply chain, saving them time and money.

Incorporating a strong continuous improvement program throughout our entire organization, from operations to accounting to maintenance, has opened many eyes to the benefits of eliminating waste, from our employees all the way to our customers.

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