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The Parable of the Christmas Ham

What can a long-standing holiday tradition teach business leaders about implementing continuous-improvement ideas? It can often be difficult to affect change in any system, let alone a large organization. Similarly, most holiday traditions are kept exactly as they always have been generation after generation.

But honoring traditions isn’t always optimal.

In the spirit of continuous improvement, let’s take a look at how adhering to old ways might not be the best way.

Picture this …

Any way you slice it, there's room for improvement.
Any way you slice it, there's room for improvement.

It’s Christmas morning, and relatives are beginning to arrive at the family home in preparation for the day of merriment ahead. The mother, the hostess of the household, is in the kitchen, focusing on the meal to be served later that night. Her son is watching her work as she prepares the ham, the centerpiece of any good Christmas feast. He asks his mother how to prepare the ham.

You wash it, season it, cut off the ends, and put it in the oven to cook. Simple,” she says.

“But why do we cut off the ends?” the son asks.

“That’s how it’s always been done. Why don’t you run off now and let me work,” Mother replies.

So the son leaves and mingles, but eventually gets curious again and returns to the kitchen.

“Mom, I’ve been thinking, and I really can’t figure out why we cut the ends off the ham.”

“That’s how it’s always been done. Go play with your cousins,” Mother replies. This is accompanied by the requisite eye rolls.

After some time, the son returns a third time, and this time, Mother pauses, thinks and then says,

I really don’t know. My mother taught me to do it that way.

Later in the day, as the ham lies roasting in the oven, its ends cut cleanly off, the son’s grandmother arrives. His mother asks her the question of the day.

“Why did you teach me to cut the ends off the ham before cooking it?” Mother asks her mother.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Grandmother replies. “That’s just the way my mother taught me.”

Later, Great-Grandmother arrives. The ham is cooked and ready to be served. The son, his mother, and her mother all greet Great-Grandmother at the door, and ask, in unison:

“Why do we cut the ends off the ham before cooking it?”

Great-Grandmother pauses and then smiles.

“Well, that’s easy, I did it because back then my oven was only 12 inches wide.

And that is why, to honor tradition, they cut off the ends of the Christmas ham!

Hugs for Grandmother - the original chef of the traditional Christmas ham
Hugs for Grandmother - the original chef of the traditional Christmas ham

Because no one asked why the ends of the ham were cut off Christmas after Christmas, perfectly good servings of ham were wasted again and again.

This parable illustrates how difficult it can be to implement good practices in the workplace, too. Typically, the practices currently in place are already considered good practices. Plus, they have momentum and a constituency of their own.

But we must question everything in business and always be looking for a better way to do everything. This is the spirit of continuous improvement.

Happy holidays!

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