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Cargo Cult by April K. Mills

January 6, 2010

If you don’t know what the term cargo cult means, you must. The stylized version of the story behind the term goes something like this:

During World War II the Americans arrived on a Pacific island to build a supply station. On this island was a native population. When the Americans arrived the natives watched the American’s actions with a great deal of interest. The natives saw the Americans clear some land, build a runway and control tower, signal for something and suddenly, as if coming from out of nowhere, cargo started to arrive, plane-load by plane-load. The natives were intrigued. They wanted these same treasures of cargo from the heavens. The rushed to their area of the island, cleared some land, built a runway and control tower, placed their high priest at the top of the tower with shells over his ears (to imitate headphones), waived their arms to signal to the skies and waited for planes to land with their cargo. No planes came. The natives didn’t know what made the planes land. In the absence of knowing why the American’s cargo system worked all the natives could do was mimic as best they could the actions they could see. That wasn’t enough to get them the cargo.”

In organizations and in life, people try to imitate someone who has had a success, often to equal results as the natives in our story. For example:

There’s a story about a team that visits a workplace known for improving business results through applying Lean principles. At the successful business the visitors see a huge display board reading numbers of production output and cycle times. Excited by their visit to a successful business, the visitors spend their bus ride home discussing where they should put their big display board. Adding a display board, without knowing why the display board mattered in the business success is a present day example of the cargo cult.

Not knowing why the change effort worked, many are left with only more stylized mimicking to get them through until someone higher up cancels the whole change, or they personally lose the willpower to continue doing something that produces no gain. For the work force, these failed attempts to make the planes land further prove that management doesn’t know anything about anything. And, in some cases they are right.

I found the term by reading Richard Feynman’s Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman. Feynman is apparently the first person to use “cargo cult” as an adjective. Since I found it I’ve been using the term over and over again. I wish I weren’t, but I see examples of “cargo cult” everywhere.

The guy who says he’s doing Lean, but is really only following the pitiful rituals in some cookbook-like Lean procedure manual. “Now is the time to do the spaghetti diagram,” he says. Ugh! No thanks. I think, “Stop waving your arms. They planes aren’t coming.” Or the woman who says she’s implemented Theory of Constraints, but has clearly failed to find any system, goal, or constraint to act on.

Cargo cult, as Feynman describes it, is important for those trying to drive change because too often people claim they are doing new things (e.g., Lean, Theory of Constraints) when really they are only wearing the trappings of the terms. If you find yourself thinking of someone, “They say they are doing X, but they really aren’t,” chances are that person is in the cargo cult.

You could do a lot of different things to free someone from a cargo cult, but you’ll find no advice for how to do that here. There are too many variables (e.g., your relationship with the person, the person’s relationship to reality) that matter too much to give sweeping, “Do this and not that,” advice.

Instead I’ll encourage you to read up on cargo cult. Talk to a friend about it. Try to find situations around you where someone (or even you) are in the cargo cult.

If you are in a cargo cult, get yourself out. Find out what the causes are behind the successes you’re trying to gain by doing these actions. Act on the causes, not on the surface behaviors.

If you’re not in a cargo cult, good. Try to keep yourself out of one. Good luck.

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