Once Upon a Punch Clock: "The Emperor's New Clothes," Challenging a Legacy

Stephanie Edwards - WIOA Adult Program Coordinator ·

The Emperor’s New Clothes is a tale about an emperor who parades around a set of new clothes without realizing that he, in fact, isn’t wearing any. The townsfolk play along with the pretense, not wanting to appear argumentative or dumb. Then, a child in the crowd blurts out that the Emperor is wearing nothing at all, and the cry is taken up by others who feel freed to speak the truth.

This is a story about the courage of one’s convictions and speaking out for things that others can see, but may be too afraid to say anything about. Legacy practices are practices in business that are done over and over again because they are how things have always been done. A legacy practice in a bakery might be, "We always bake 40 cookies because that's always what we've done, even if we don't sell them all." This sounds familiar but is often wasteful and not necessary to satisfy a customer.

Sometimes these legacy practices are internally criticized by staff members who go along with them just like the townspeople go along with the Emperor wearing clothes, even when they see the truth or a better way of getting a job done. It is tradition to agree with the Emperor, as it is tradition to follow legacy practices in the workplace. Fear can be the key reason that employees don’t speak out and change practices. When an EDSI consultant enters the picture, the consultant can protect the organization by doing a test run of the employee suggestions so the staff doesn’t have to be afraid.

If a staff member wants to challenge a legacy, or the way things have always been done, the consequence may seem severe, but it can also be the first step toward operational improvement. When an employee is asked by his/her supervisor, “What do you see that could be improved here?” this transfers power and freedom to the employees, and can begin the operational improvements that are needed to reduce waste in an organization. When an employee feels free to say, "We need to make less batter and bake fewer cookies!" and the suggestions are heard and considered, fear is transformed into empowerment. I am reminded of this moral from The Emperor’s New Clothes, “Sight becomes insight, which in turn prompts action.” If we can give credit to the sight of others in doing things a better way, we can motivate others to action and create a sustainable change in the legacy model.

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