Where’s the Beef? (A Lesson in Challenging Assumptions)

by Michael Anderson

June 6, 2011

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On occasion, in a staff meeting or a consulting session with a client, I’ve been known to utter the phrase ‘that sounds like a roast beef story’. Understandably, this gets me a few confused looks.

The Roast Beef Story is an old tale about a young woman who has her boyfriend over for a roast beef dinner. When she serves him the meal, he savours the wonderful aroma but notices that the ends of the roast are cut off and asks why. Puzzled, the young woman replies she doesn’t know the reason why, but it’s the way her mother always cooked roast beef. So she calls her mother to find out why she cut the ends off the roast. Amazingly enough, her mother says she doesn’t know either but that’s the way her mother always did it. Now the mother proceeds to call the Grandmother who says that the reason she cut the ends off the roast beef was so it would fit in her small oven! Obviously, the need to cut the ends off the roast was long gone, yet two generations continued to do it without even knowing why.

The moral of the story of course, is that just because you’ve always done something a certain way, doesn’t mean it’s the best way. Circumstances change, and processes should be regularly reviewed for efficiency and effectiveness. Challenging assumptions and using iterative techniques like the 5 Whys are great ways to determine underlying rationales, and generate discussion around process improvement.

As a technology management company, we see our fair share of roast beef stories. We’ve visited more than one business where someone is responsible for faithfully changing the backup tapes every day, but the backup software hasn’t been working for months!

The most common roast beef story that we encounter is a reactive approach to technology management. Most businesses have settled into a routine of dealing with computer issues as they arise. They believe that if servers continue to run, and their support company responds when something breaks, that their technology is being managed (or they’re ‘fine’). The reality couldn’t be farther from the truth. Businesses today, both big and small, are placing increasing pressure on their information systems. A proactive, managed approach to technology is absolutely essential for companies looking to mitigate security risks, decrease downtime and business interruptions, and maximize the return on their technology spending.

So, where are the roast beef stories in your business? Do you take the time to review your business processes on an annual or semi-annual basis? Are people free to challenge the very assumptions that might drive the way your company operates?

Finally, do you ever hear the response ‘that’s just the way we’ve always done it’? Next time you do, you can smile and say ‘sounds like a roast beef story to me!’

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