The lessons from railway tracks
“Most managers were trained to be the thing they most despise – bureaucrats”
Alvin Toffler: author and futurist
The state of New South Wales (NSW) railways has a railway gauge (distance between the rails) called the standard gauge. It is 4 feet, 8.5 inches or 1.435 metres and is also the gauge used in Great Britain and USA. As an aside, there are 2 other railway gauges used in Australia. How they came about is a story for another blog.
The standard gauge is an exceedingly odd number.
Why was that gauge used?
Because that’s the railway gauge used in England, and NSW was formally a British colony.
Why did the British select this gauge?
Because the first railway lines were built by the same people who built the pre-rail tramways. This was the gauge they used.
Why was this gauge used?
Because the engineers who built the tramways used the same jigs that were used for building wagons using the same wheel spacing.
Why did the wagons have this wheel spacing?
Because the wagon wheels were the spacing of the old wheel ruts. Outside these spacing they would break through the old, long distance roads in England.
So who built the old rutted roads in England?
Imperial Rome over 2,000 years ago. Many of these old Roman roads have been used ever since.
And what formed the initial ruts in the roads?
Roman war chariots.
So the NSW standard railway gauge were derived from the original specifications of an Imperial Roman war chariot.
What a great example of the power and life of bureaucracy. Bureaucracies can live forever.
When you are handed a specification, procedure or process and fail to understand the ‘logic’ or ‘reason’ you can make the statement:
‘What horse’s arse came up with this?’
And you may be right. Imperial Roman army chariots were made wide enough to accommodate the rear ends of two war horses.
The moral of the story is to “aware of the power and intransigence of
bureaucracies”. This can be outside your organisation or within your organisation itself.
You need to keep asking the question ‘why’ to get the best outcome.