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“That’s just the way we do it” is not a good answer

Lt. Col. Taylor Johnston, official photo, U.S. Air Force

Lt. Col. Taylor Johnston, official photo, U.S. Air Force

TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – I’ve been lucky in my career so far to instruct on three different aircraft and serve in the contingency response world.  I started off flying C-21As (LearJets) doing distinguished visitor travel, then transitioned to the C-130 E/H doing airland and airdrop missions. I’ve also flown on air-refueling missions.  As I transitioned into the C-130 and KC-135, I asked many questions on why the techniques and procedures were a certain way. 

I had instructed previously and knew I was going to instruct again, so I wanted to know not only what to do in the aircraft, but why we did what we did.  Unfortunately, all too often in the C-130 and KC-135, the answer I received was “that’s the way we did it back in Strategic or Tactical Air Command.”  While there was probably a good reason for doing it that particular way, we had lost sight of the original reason, and therefore, were unable to see the possibility or harm in changing the system.

There is an anecdote from a scientific study that is a little more blatant in its description:  It starts

with a cage containing five monkeys. Inside the cage, there is a banana on a string and a set of stairs under it. Before long, a monkey will go to the stairs and start to climb towards the banana. As soon as he touches the stairs, all of the other monkeys are sprayed with cold water.

After a while, another monkey makes an attempt with the same result - all the other monkeys are sprayed with cold water. Pretty soon, when another monkey tries to climb the stairs, the other monkeys will try to prevent it.

Then, one monkey from the cage is removed and replaced with a new one. The new monkey sees the banana and wants to climb the stairs. To his surprise and horror, all of the other monkeys attack him even though there is no water sprayed.

After another attempt and attack, he knows that if he tries to climb the stairs, he will be assaulted.  Next, another of the original five monkeys is removed and replaced with a new one. The newcomer goes to the stairs and is attacked. The previous newcomer takes part in the punishment with enthusiasm. Likewise, a third original monkey is replaced with a new one, then a fourth, then the fifth. Every time the newest monkey takes to the stairs, he is attacked.

Most of the monkeys that are beating him have no idea why they were not permitted to climb the stairs or why they are participating in the beating of the newest monkey.

After replacing all the original monkeys, none of the remaining monkeys have ever been sprayed with cold water. Nevertheless, no monkey ever again approaches the stairs to try for the banana. Why not? Because as far as they know, that's the way it's always been done around here.

This is permanent change of station season.  You are either new to Travis or will be teaching a newcomer about their roles and responsibilities in the workplace. If you are new here, I challenge you to ask the question, “Why?” If you are teaching, I challenge you to know the reason why.  Things can always be improved, and if we don’t understand the “why,” how can we make things better for the next generation?