VOL. 12 January ISSUE YEAR 2011

Nadcap Column

in Vol. 12 - January Issue - Year 2011
I Guess We’ve Just Always Done It That Way…

The New Year represents an invaluable opportunity to take a fresh look at the way we work. All too often, people get stuck in the rut of their comfort zone. It feels good, but is it really the best place to be? This anecdote illustrates the inflexibility of doing things the way they have always been done:

The standard North American railroad gage (i.e. distance between the rails) is 4 feet 8.5 inches because that’s how they were built in England and US railroads were built by English immigrants.

Why did the English build them like that?
Because the first rail lines were built by the same people who built the pre-railroad tramways, and that’s the gage they used.

Why did they use that gage?
Because the people who built the tramways used the same tools that they used for building wagons, which used that wheel spacing.

Why did the wagons have that particular wheel spacing?
If they tried to use any other spacing, the wagon wheels would break on some of the old, long distance roads in England, because that’s the spacing of the wheel ruts.

Who built those old roads?
The ancient Romans built the first long distance roads in England. Their chariots formed the initial ruts, which everyone else had to match for fear of destroying their wagon wheels.

When you see a Space Shuttle, there are two big booster rockets attached to either side of the main fuel tank. These are solid rocket boosters (SRB’s).

Reportedly, the engineers who designed them would have preferred them wider, but they had to be shipped by train to the launch site.

The railroad line from the factory runs through a tunnel in the mountains. The SRB’s had to fit through that tunnel, which is slightly wider than the railroad track and the railroad track, as you now know, is about as wide as two horses’ behinds.

So, a major Space Shuttle design feature of what is arguably the world’s most advanced transportation system was determined thousands of years ago by a horse’s back end.

This is obviously not the ideal way to do business: based on requirements dating back hundreds of years. Most companies that tried to operate that way today would run into serious issues. Of course, a railroad system is exceptionally difficult to maintain, let alone modernize. And there are always reasons for any organization not to conduct a critical analysis of their operations, policies and procedures: lack of time, lack of resource and lack of problems with the existing system are typical reasons. Any successful organization, however, should always have one eye on the future as well as the present and a review, however inconvenient it may be in the present, may highlight valuable opportunities for improvement in the future.

PRI, the not-for-profit organization that administers the Nadcap program, conducts regular continual improvement exercises to ensure the fitness of the organization to meet the needs of its customers. Some of these – which other companies may benefit from introducing – include:

Regular Document Reviews

Like many regulated organizations (PRI is audited annually by its customers to ensure procedural compliance), PRI staff regularly review the policies and procedures that govern its functioning, updating them as necessary. Each of these controlled documents has a document owner, whose assigned responsibility it is to ensure this takes place, and communication of any update to all affected staff is part of the review process.


PRI conducts regular surveys of its customers to ensure their satisfaction with the service provided by staff and with the operation of the Nadcap program as a whole. The feedback given is analyzed by a team consisting of PRI staff and customers in order to identify ways to successfully and realistically identify opportunities for improvement.

Talent Management

The internal perception of an organization can have just as much impact on its success as the external perception. Staff who are not happy communicate that to customers through their attitude and their actions. It is important to gauge staff satisfaction as well as customer satisfaction. PRI recently completed its first annual staff satisfaction survey, which will be used to benchmark performance moving forwards.