5 Monkeys

I recently visited a joinery company as they wanted to talk about how they could improve their business performance and health & safety. Whilst walking around the workshop I asked several of the joiners why there were carrying out a process in a certain way. The answer was…“this is how I was taught and its always been done this way”. I know that some joiners do like to be thought of as “very traditional”, but this answer is still typical of many businesses and company culture. I then share this analogy/storey of the ‘5 monkeys and a banana’.

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!

Culture is created over time and frequently practices are followed without anyone questioning why or if there could be a better or safer way. Fear of change stagnates people and companies. Always encourage everyone to keep asking the question “why?”, continuously evaluate what they do and how they can do improve.