I would acknowledge the author of this tale I am about to tell about company policy, if only I knew who wrote it. It is one of those stories that you see handed out at training courses or published on the internet without a hint of who the author was.

The story begins….

“Start with a cage containing five monkeys. Inside the cage, hang a banana on a string and place 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, spray all of the monkeys with cold water.

After a while, another monkey makes an attempt with the same result; all the monkeys are sprayed with cold water.

Pretty soon, when another monkey tries to climb the stairs, the other monkeys will try to prevent it. Now, turn off the cold water. Remove one monkey from the cage and replace it 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.

After another attempt and attack, he knows that if he tries to climb the stairs, he will be assaulted. Next, remove another of the original five monkeys and replace it with a new one. The newcomer goes to the stairs and is attacked. The previous newcomer takes part in the punishment with enthusiasm.

Again, replace a third original monkey with a new one. The new one makes it to the stairs and is attacked as well.

Two of the four monkeys that beat 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 the fourth and fifth original monkeys, all the monkeys that have been sprayed with cold water have been replaced. Nevertheless, no monkey ever again approaches the stairs.

Why not?

Because as far as they know that’s the way it’s always been around here.

And that’s how company policy begins …”

It is a good tale. It is funny and it brings out the point but is too ludicrous to be true in real life?

A company that I worked for in South America operated in a business environment that included hyperinflation. Prices would rise in the local currency by more than 60% per month. Minibar prices at the hotel I often stayed at increased everyday. The product the company sold was fully imported and paid for in US dollars.

Customers who ordered product on credit only had to miss paying their invoice by a few days after the due date to get a hefty discount on the quoted price in money of the day terms. To stop the company from bleeding money, a policy was put in place that all orders were to be vetted and payment organised before the product would be loaded and delivered. The process usually took a few hours, but could take a day or two in exceptional circumstances.

The organisations that bought products from this company were large organisations themselves. Therefore, the production department that needed the product did not always know what the accounts payable department had organised. As you can imagine, there were occasional delays in delivering the product, which the production department of the customer did not appreciate. This caused great angst on occasions and threatened to upset long term relationships with valuable customers. So another policy was enacted, whereby the despatch department of the supply company would call their “gold” customers and tell them about the progress of their order, keeping them updated every half hour or so.

When I saw this company some six years after the policies were enacted, inflation was running at eight percent per annum and falling. Price timing was no longer an issue. However, there now was a department of fifty people taking care of their “gold” customers. When I asked how many customers actually caused a problem with payment timing now inflation was under control and what impact it had on the business, the answer was “none and none”.

“So why are the checks being made that delays customers orders that causes a department of fifty people to exist?” was a natural follow up question. The answer to which was, “It’s company policy”.

I believe that all organisations I have worked for and with have had a tranche of policies which are out of date, do not fit the environment in which the organisation now finds itself and cause significant levels of inefficiency and ineffectiveness. The solution to this often unseen problem is to review all policies and processes which are three or more years older for their purpose. Otherwise, we all risk making monkeys of ourselves.