Sunday, December 6, 2015

The Lesson of the Holiday Roast

Have you ever heard the story of the holiday roast? Little six-year old Mary is watching Alison, her mom, carefully preparing the big holiday meal. There are appetizers, salads and all sorts of side dishes. But the centerpiece is always the wonderful holiday roast.

After spending time at the market to choose just the right one, Alison is now in her kitchen, ready to begin cooking it. It is unwrapped, placed in a huge roasting pan, seasoned, coated and finally, most importantly, carefully cut exactly in half. As she gently placed each half face down in the sauce little Mary asked why she had cut this beautiful roast in half. Alison had lots more to do and shrugged off the question.

After exactly two hours, Alison opened the oven, pulled the pan out, turned it around and put it back in. Little Mary, curious again, wanted to know why the roast had been cut in half, and why the pan had to be rotated. "Why?" Alison snapped back. "Well that is the way my mother, your grandmother, taught me to do it," she explained.

Still curious, the little girl asked her mother if they could call grandma and ask her these questions. When they got grandma on the phone, she said the same thing. It was just what she had been taught. Maybe cutting it open makes it juicier inside, and rotating the pan makes it cook more evenly, but I never really asked my mother. Fortunately, great grandma was still around in a nursing home. Little Mary's curiosity still unsatisfied, grandma thought perhaps great grandma could reveal the secret.

As IT professionals, we will often try to uncover the origin of a particular business process. Like little Mary, when we see how things are done, and it is not obvious why, we ask. Called upon to add, change or remove some element of a process, it goes beyond mere curiosity. It is important to know the real reason behind each step being taken, and to put this process into the context of the larger picture. While this can be irritating to the person making a seemingly simple request, this story illustrates why the relentless inquires are often justified.

You see, they got great grandma on the phone and little Mary suggested cutting the roast made it soak up the juice better or would somehow preserve tenderness. Great Granny laughed and explained that in her day the ovens were small and if you didn't cut the roast and lay it flat it wouldn't fit! The wood fueled oven was much hotter in the back than the front and so you had to rotate the pan to cook both halves the same. Of course, neither of these conditions existed today and the tradition was pointless.

And so often it turns out that a business process was invented to meet a need which was outside of the capabilities of systems in place at that time. The reporting oven could only bake so much data at one time leading to a need to slice the data in half. Clever people invent clever ways to achieve their goal by whatever means they know and it then becomes routine. As time passes and people hand off responsibilities, the approach becomes institutionalized and the rationale behind the design of the process is lost. It becomes tradition or, as we often hear, simply "the way we have always done it."

We all know the speed and capacity of systems today are far greater. The data "ovens" are larger and "heat" evenly all the way around. Moreover, software capabilities have expanded beyond our wildest imagination. If together we focus on the ultimate goal, deconstruct the current process and perhaps even trace its origin we are likely to find we can eliminate unnecessary steps and take advantage of newer, faster approaches. With less effort we quickly and consistently deliver the best holiday roasts.

Captain Joe

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