Why Perspective is Key

I love railroads.I especially love studying the history of the Reading Railroad, a “fallen flag” that was merged into Conrail in 1976. Growing up along the Reading’s Mainline subdivision and spending many hours watching trains rumble through, I never gave a thought to the spacing of the rails – 4 ft, 8 1/2 inches to be exact, the standard gauge for all US railroads.

Where on earth did that number come from? I was recently enlightened by @AndyAndrews in Mastering the Seven Decisions:

Going back through history we learn that:

  • Four feet, eight and one-half inch spacing is what they used in England, and it was English expatriates who build the first US railroads.
  • Prior to building railroads, the English built tram-ways on this same spacing, because they reused the same jigs, tools, and measurements that had been used to build wagons.
  • The wagons used this spacing because it needed to match the ruts in some of the old long-distance English roads. Different spacing would have meant a lot of broken wagon wheels.
  • The wheel-rutted roads through England were remnants of Imperial Roman Empire’s road system dating back to 43 – 410 AD. Turns out the famous Roman war chariots also had a wheel spacing of four feet, eight, and one-half inches. Rome was all about standards, so all the chariots were the same, and the roads got grooved over time.

So today, we have US railroads built to the standards of the old Roman war chariot. And why? Because there is natural tendency to become accustomed to the ways things are and do things the way they’ve always been done. Perhaps it was the old English wagon builders who coined the phrase “if it ain’t broke,don’t fix it.”

Fast-foward to the US Space Shuttle program. We’ve all seen the pictures of the shuttle waiting for lift-off and can probably remember seeing the solid rocket boosters (the two smaller cylinders on either side of the main tank, known as “SRBs”.) separate during flight and float back to earth. The SRBs were manufacturered on the other side of the country from Cape Canaveral and had to be shipped by rail over track that passes through tunnels; tunnels whose width is governed by the width of the…yes, you guessed it…the spacing of the rails. So even though the shuttle engineers may have preferred to make the SRB’s larger, it seems that the Romans actually had the final say on the design specifications.

The take-away is this: From what perspective are you making technology decisions (or any decision for that matter) for your business? Are you making them based on the way things have always been done, or are you taking new possibilities into account? Are you trying to innovate on old models because they’re familiar and safe, or are you willing to explore new models that can give you a decided edge, but might stretch you a bit?

I have a friend who has a fond saying when presented with a new and different idea, which, when sanitized for a PG-13 rating goes like: “What horse’s rear-end came up with this?” In a certain respect, he’s more right than he realizes, because the Roman war chariots were built to be wide enough to handle the back end of two horses harnessed side by side. So we can trace design elements of one of man’s greatest technical achievements back to a horse’s rear end. Marvelous. I’ll never be able to look at the Shuttle the same way again.

Have you become conditioned to doing things the same old way? Is it holding you or your business back?

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