iSixSigma

Cargo Cults

I can’t remember the first time I head the concept of a “Cargo Cult” used as a business analogy. But I can recall thinking that it was a powerful way to explain the dangers of throwing money and resources around trying to duplicate what another company had done without really taking the time to understand exactly what they did and why they did it. There were obvious applications to Six Sigma deployments in particular, since Six Sigma is rife with rituals and jargon.

And I was right. It was very effective. So I used the analogy in conversation, in training, and during presentations with great frequency for quite a while. Others were out there doing the same. At some point I became convinced that everyone in the world must have heard the story. Plus, I’m not a big fan of making arguments by analogy because you open yourself up to a simple, but devastating criticism. So for the past few years I stopped talking about Cargo Cults.

Then, the other day, I brought the Cargo Cult idea up in conversation again. To my surprise, no one around the table had heard of it, and they all reacted enthusiastically. I admit the possibility that the crowd was just being polite, but on the other hand maybe it’s time to polish this chestnut and put it back on display. If you’ve heard it a million times, you can stop reading now. If you haven’t…

I’m not sure if he was the first to do so, but Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman eloquently described Cargo Cults it in his 1974 Commencement Address at CalTech as an evocation of science done badly:

“In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head to headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas–he’s the controller–and they wait for the airplanes to land. They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land.”

The entire speech is available here if you want Feynman’s context, but it’s not essential to the story.

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An interesting fact (but also not essential) is that Cargo Cults are real. Wikipedia has some history, and also makes the following point:

“From time to time, the term ’cargo cult’ is invoked as an English language idiom, to mean any group of people who imitate the superficial exterior of a process or system without having any understanding of the underlying substance.”

If you’ve ever worked on a Six Sigma deployment, this has to sound familiar. How many deployments were launched simply “because GE did it”? And how many deployment were launched just like GE did it? I’m not knocking GE – quite the opposite. But for some other organization to simply mimic what GE did in an attempt to achieve the same results they did is the worst kind of Cargo Cult behavior. Still, it happens all the time, and is still happening to this day. And as detractors are fond of pointing out, the planes don’t land.

The power of this analogy arises for three reasons. First, the Cargo Cult story is fun and very easy to tell. Second, the link between Cargo Cults and Continuous Improvements deployments is easy to recognize. And third, there are so many botched deployments out there falling prey to the fallacy of Cargo Cult thinking that your audience will immediately start nodding their heads if you bring it up in conversation.

So, there you have it: the Cargo Cult analogy. Stifle a yawn if you’ve heard it too many times before, but try it out on your friends if you haven’t. It can be strecthed and pulled in ahundred directions to illuminate ahundred differentpoints. Unfortunately, using it to talk aboutSix Sigma deployments doesn’t require much stretching at all.

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