When you or I question a practice that seems to defy logic, the answer is likely to be the same:

“That’s the way we’ve always done it.”

The response shifts whatever blame there may be to some unnamed person at some unnamed time in the past. The response also indicates no thinking is going to go into whether or not what has been done in the past is the best course for the future.

In fact, there’s a translation for “That’s the way we’ve always done it.” It goes like this:

“I don’t want to take the time or the energy to examine if what we’re doing is best.”

The girl, the ham, and the Easter dinner

There’s an old story that takes different forms, but in this version, a young girl is helping her mother prepare Easter dinner. Just before placing the ham in the oven for baking, the mother takes a large knife and begins to cut off both ends of the ham.

“Why did you cut off the ends of the ham?” asked the daughter.

The mother thought for a minute and replied, “That’s the way my mother always did it,”

A moment later, the young girl vanished. Her mother saw her in the next room…on the phone…with Grandmother…”checking out” the story.

The Grandmother verified the story was true, that she did, in fact, always cut off both ends of the ham before baking.

When asked why, Grandmother thought for a minute and replied, “That’s the way my mother always did it.”

Easter arrives

As fate would have it, the elderly Great Grandmother, still very much alive, was a guest for Easter dinner. As soon as she set foot across the threshold of the front door, the inquisition began.

“Great Grandmother, Mommy always cuts the ends off her ham before she puts it in the oven. Mommy says she does it because that’s the way Grandmother always did it. Grandmother says she did it because that’s the way you always did it. Is it true, Great Grandmother? Did you always cut the ends off of the ham?”

With a smile as big as all outdoors this elderly matriarch responded, “Yes, indeed, my child, I always cut the ends off the ham”

“But why?” asked the young girl.

Without so much as a moment’s thought, she held her hands about 12 inches apart, and replied, “Because my pan was only this big.”

Circumstances and procedures

Decades ago, Great Grandmother was confronted with a set of circumstances. Her pan was not large enough to accommodate the ham. She came up with procedures to handle those circumstances. She did the best she could with what she had.

But across the generations, the circumstances changed. The procedures stayed the same.

This situation is perhaps no more true than when we’re talking about technology.

How many times do you and I encounter procedures put in place during a bygone era? They were procedures put in place by good people doing the best they could with what they had. However, circumstances changed. What we have is so much better, but we fail to update our procedures to take advantage of new circumstances.

Like Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz,” we go through all kinds of trouble while ignoring the Ruby Slippers at our disposal.

What if we were to confront today’s challenges the way Great Grandmother in the story confronted hers? What if we did the best we could with what we have now in an age where what we have now is way better?

If it’s true that good people in the past were doing the best they could with what they had, then the only way “that’s the way we’ve always done it has a chance to be right if we’re doing the best we can with what we have. And that one takes more thinking than some people are willing to do.

Where are we “cutting off the ends of the ham”?

While this article is fresh on your mind, spend some time this week examining procedures at home and at work that have outgrown their usefulness.

Do you have a “that’s the way we’ve always done it” story to tell? What’s your story about a time when circumstances changed but the now outdated procedures stayed the same? Feel free to leave a comment.

Want to get your desk clean and everything you have to do in one place? I’ve got two free gifts for you that do exactly that. But it’s only for email subscribers. Want to join? You get them both. Plus, each week you’ll hear from me with nuts & bolts tools and strategies to make life easier and more productive. You’re one click away from making it happen