Obsolete Processes Hurt Businesses

Obsolete Processes

I went to a new hair stylist to have my hair trimmed a few years ago. By the time she was finished, my hair was at least four inches shorter and I had a very visible chunk cut out of my bangs. The biggest issue was that I specifically said I only needed a trim (less than 2 inches) and emphasized that I didn’t want bangs. I finally told her to stop trying to “fix it” and went to speak to the owner who said, “Well, she’s only been a hair stylist for a few weeks.” OMG!

It will come as no surprise that I, now, like to know how long a company has been operating before doing business with them especially when I deal with accountants, lawyers, and hair stylists. I need to feel confident in their abilities.

However, there are pitfalls to having been in business a long time. Companies that have been around a while run the risk of promoting obsolete systems. As a small business grows and morphs into a flourishing multi-city company, the processes that were valid during its infancy are outgrown. For this reason, it is important to encourage owners and employees to question everything. Employees who are told “because that is the way we do it here” should be encouraged to ask the question again or go to leadership for more information.

There are two stories that highlight the plight of obsolete systems.


The first is the story of the newly married wife who is cooking for her in-laws. Her mother-in-law noticed that the new wife cut the ends off the ham before seasoning it and sliding it into the oven to cook.

 The mother-in-law asked why the ends were cut off. The bride took a thoughtful moment and then said, “I’m not sure. My mother always cut the ends off and her baked hams were delicious. It must make the ham soak up the seasonings better.”

 A few weeks later, the bride was spending time with her mother when she remembered her mother-in-law’s words.

“Why do you cut the ends off the ham,” the bride asked her mother.

 Her mother took a thoughtful moment and said, “I’m not sure. My mother always cut the ends of and her baked hams were delicious.” Now, they were both curious so they called the grandmother to ask why she cut the ends off the ham.

“Well,” the grandmother began. “My baking pan is too small to fit the whole ham so I have to cut the ends off for it to fit.”


The second story introduces us to the “Wet Monkey Theory”. The Wet Monkey Theory posits that many obsolete systems are kept alive by very passionate followers.

Imagine a round room with five monkeys sitting evenly spaced against the wall. In the center of the room is a step stool leading to a single banana hanging from the ceiling. After a few moments, one of the monkeys climbs the step stool and reaches for the banana.

All of the monkeys are sprayed with ice cold water until the monkey is knocked off the step stool. After a short period of time, another monkey tries to get the banana. As soon as his foot touches the step stool, all of the monkeys are sprayed with ice cold water. The water only stops when the monkey is knocked off the step stool. After a short period, another monkey reaches for the banana. The other four monkeys attack the 5th monkey before he can put one foot on the step stool. 

The experimenters remove one of the wet monkeys and replace it with a monkey who has never experienced the spray of cold water. The other four monkeys attack the new monkey when he reaches for the banana. All wet monkeys are slowly replaced with new monkeys until there are no monkeys in the round room who have ever been sprayed with ice water.

However, all these monkeys have been conditioned to beat any member of the pack who attempts to reach for the banana even though none of them know the reason.

These are examples of the problems posed by an obsolete system. Something that was valid and functional at one time no longer helps the business perform better. Obsolete systems waste time, money, and market share.

It is hard to see obsolete systems because we are so close to the process. However, we harm the company if we choose to ignore them. Hiring a consulting firm is one way to evaluate whether your processes are still valid. You should get a corrective action plan or best-practice recommendations to slash non-value adding activities. If cash is tight, encourage and incentivize existing employees to identify old processes. They are probably the best people to solve the problem anyway.

How do you keep obsolete processes out of your business?

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