We have always done it that way!

Mario Guagliano,

Politecnico di Milano, Italy –

It is not rare that, when visiting companies in the different industry, I am interested in designing solutions which, according to me, are not satisfactory and could be improved. On such occasions, I usually ask why they chose that particular solution rather than another which might imply time and cost savings, while improving performance and quality.

I will try to make concrete examples. Why do you use this material instead of another? Why do you build prototypes without carrying out calculations and simulations which may reduce the burden of the construction of physical prototypes, while highlighting unavoidable modifications already during virtual prototype phase? Why is the crest radius in that transmission shaft so modest, causing a high notch effect, and is not incremented? Why is this piece made with that technology cycle and aren’t other manufacturing methods considered? And I could go on and on, but I think I will become boring. In short, a variety of situations ranging from materials to simulations, structural calculations and technologies; all important aspects in the design of products and systems with a high innovation rate, which makes it possible (sometimes wide spread) for an optimal solution to become obsolete a few years later.

Readers will be wondering about what all these aspects and the questions I asked have in common and where I mean.

Well, what links these questions, and what has always made me angry, so to speak, is the answer, almost the same: “… Why? Because we have always done it that way!”

There are many reasons behind this answer: those who have been in charge of that particular aspect for years, continue repeating what they know best and do not want to get back into play, running the risk of being cornered by the most dynamic and enterprising ones (some say they are the youngest, but intellectual freshness and curiosity are not a question of age), or they are afraid of making investments whose real return they cannot understand, or even just for personal attitudes, because they are unwilling to risk and prefer daily repetition of established practices rather than “twisting”, for which they do not feel prepared, or, again, for various professional jealousies whose origin dates back to the dawn of time. And I am convinced that, if I interviewed readers, other reasons, either justified or not, would emerge. Regardless of the reason, I believe that answer, I dare say, is a bit stupid; and if not stupid, surely destined, perhaps not immediately, to be a losing choice.

We know that the world is always changing, and dozens of historical examples show what consequences will occur by defending what has become practice, without wondering if something could be improved. Even more so, this is important in the context of global industry, where innovation is the key to remain competitive. Before doing something “… because we have always done it that way,” we should wonder what we could lose, by ignoring, a priori or for prejudice, different solutions. But, more importantly, we should make sure to create structures and environments which discourage this kind of behavior, focusing, even in everyday practice, on proposals, discussions and exchanging of new ideas between the different players of the design process, in order to avoid the conservation to the bitter end of what is established. It is not easy, because it means to radically change the way of thinking of many and break psychological barriers of the human nature, but those who already have succeeded have not regretted it at all.