That may quite possibly be the most annoying phrase in the English language, especially in a manufacturing setting. If you’ve ever tried to get people to work differently then you’ve most likely heard that phrase before, a lot. And it isn’t just the front line folks either, I’ve heard it said by managers and presidents. The natural response to, “Because that’s the way we’ve always done it.” is, “So what?” but that isn’t very helpful either. It’s important to keep in mind that doing things the way they’ve always been done isn’t necessarily anyone’s fault; the institutionalized methods of doing a job are passed down in what is assumed to be the correct way of doing things and are so ingrained in an organization that they aren’t seriously considered and are quite literally done unthinkingly.

I just finished an interesting book called “The Power of Habit” which explains why people do the things that they do, and understanding how habits work is the first step to breaking old habits and creating new and better ones. Think back to when you pulled out of your driveway this morning to go to work and try to recall it in exact detail. Odds are that unless something out of the ordinary happened, like you almost hit a jogger or ran over your kid’s bicycle, you’ll have a tough time remembering it. That’s because of the way our brains store information about our regular routines. Psychologically what happens is this: When performing a new task our brain is running a million miles an hour, taking in all of the information it can about the task so that it can process everything that’s going on. After doing the same task a number of times, though, our brain decides that it has a grasp on things and in order to save space and brainpower it essentially creates a file out of all that routine information and puts that file into storage. Then, whenever it’s time to perform that regular task our brain opens up the file, runs it, and essentially goes into autopilot while doing whatever it is that we’re doing. The three components of a habit are: the cue, which tells our brain that we’re about to perform a routine task. The habit, which we’ve done so many times that our brain switches into autopilot mode and we do things in more or less the same way that we’ve always done them. And the reward, whatever the objective of the task is that let’s our brain know that we’ve successfully performed the task and that it’s time to switch back out of autopilot.

Institutions, like people, also have habits. It’s why government agencies seem to only grow in size and scope, it’s why some companies have a reputation for poor (or good) quality or customer service, and it’s why smart, capable, hard-working people continue to do things ‘the way they’ve always been done’ despite everyone in the company having their own ideas as to how things could be done better. Because habits, both individual and institutional, are a natural and fundamental inclination intended to save energy and brainpower and to provide stability, there will always be habits. The key, therefore, is to make sure that the right habits are in place. One famous example that’s discussed in the book but is also very well known, particularly in the manufacturing world, is Paul O’Neil’s takeover of ALCOA in 1987. When O’Neil took the reigns as CEO his first initiative was to focus on workplace safety, but because of the institutionalized practices put in place to achieve that (more employee input, more open lines of communication between departments and managers, more accountability) what started out as a workplace safety initiative turned into a general habit of continuous improvement. So much so that by the time O’Neil retired, only thirteen years after starting at the company, ALCOA was five times larger and its value 200% greater than it had been when he began. The reason Paul O’Neil was so successful at ALCOA was because he had attacked a ‘Keystone Habit’, a habit so fundamental that it has a resonating effect on all other habits, and put the structures in place to embrace those inevitable secondary habit changes. The goal for anyone hoping to get their employees to stop doing things the way they’ve always been done and to get into a habit of continuous improvement is to either identify keystone habits within their own company and then replace them with better ones, or to identify opportunities to establish keystone habits where once there were none. Stand-up meetings every morning, weekly gemba walks, or a structured system for regularly reviewing employees’ improvement ideas are all habits that can have a resonating effect on other institutionalized habits throughout the company.

Our lives are, for the most part, a series of routines and habits. We have the choice to either establish good habits or fall into bad ones. Breaking old habits isn’t easy but it is worthy of our best efforts, and I’m reminded of a quote from another book that I’m making my way through by the prolific historian, Will Durant, when he sums up Aristotle’s ideas saying, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit”. The first step is to recognize the power of habits and stop doing things the way that they’ve always been done, the next step is to replace those old habits with new and better ones.