I came across a tweet from astronaut Buzz Aldrin a few days ago which showed a picture of his travel expense claim from the 1969 moon landing. Aldrin actually had to a file an expense report for $33.31 for a trip that went from Houston — Cape Kennedy — the moon — the Pacific Ocean — Hawaii — and then back to Houston. (The amount was for Aldrin’s use of his private vehicle on the ground.) And oh, by the way Aldrin and team also had to fill in a customs forms for the lunar rocks they brought back.
For those of us who have a deep antipathy for administrative processes, especially those related to filling forms at the end of a tiring trip, I can see the hackles rising on the neck. Which horse’s rear-end would make these world heroes fill up an expense form?
To that I say “Whoa, stop! Show some respect for horses’ behinds.”
I’m sure you’re aware of the deep impact that the size of horses’ rear-ends have had on railroad track width standards. It’s worth recapping. The story is that the standard American Rail gauge which has a distance of 4′ 8.5″ between the tracks is actually based on the width of two horses’ rumps. Apparently English railroad track widths were first based on standard wagon cart widths. In turn, these standard cart widths descended from the design of Roman military carts, which were determined by the width of two average Roman horses attached to the wagons.
The story gets better. There’s a further link between said Roman horses and the space shuttle program. It’s claimed that the two solid rocket boosters or SRBs on the space shuttle had their specifications in turn, influenced by the width of the railroad track. The SRBs are made by Thiokol at their factory in Utah. The engineers who designed the SRBs would have preferred to make them a bit fatter, but the SRBs had to be shipped by train from the factory to the launch site. And, as we know, the railway track is about as wide as two horses’ behinds.
Process Standards Seem to Live Forever
The point of this story is that when it comes to standards, especially those related to bureaucratic processes, legacy process rules outlive function. This is true of work-process standards even in the most modern, professionally run companies. In the age of real-time money transfer using Apple Pay or WeChat, why do we still run employee payroll processes weekly or monthly? In a world where every employee who travels for work uses a corporate credit card, and the credit card tracks every expense, why does the employee need to fill in a travel expense report? On a personal level, why are eReader standards set by the limitations of physical books when electronic document and books can be read (and linked to other information) in wonderful new ways?
Eliminate -> Simplify -> Re-design -> Automate, But on Steroids
To be clear, the concept of simplifying business processes before automation isn’t new. Every IT project in history has intended to simplify before automating (e.g. you don’t need to fill out the check deposit form at the bank if you do smartphone check deposit). However, what’s new in the digital disruption era is the magnitude of the process change that’s needed. Getting rid of the historical payroll processing methods isn’t just a small tweak in practices, it’s a major redesign of work processes. And, we’re not doing enough of that.
OK, we can quibble about whether Roman horse measurements actually drove the Space Rocket Booster standards. (Fact finding websites tend to think that the horse width may have indirectly influenced, rather than directly driven the railroad standards. However, I figure that in today’s post-truth world the horse-railroad track link probably counts as an indisputable fact). Anyway, the point is that work-process standards usually live way past their shelf-life. Real digital transformation isn’t going to come from minor incremental simplification and automation of work processes. There’s always a role for such continuous improvements in process, of course, but in parallel you need to work on disrupting work processes too.