Problematic Process Change in the Kitchen – Rewiring the Stored Procedures

This started out as a single post but appears to have turned into two.

A quick recap from the previous post – we’ve had a new kitchen installed; this has changed everything. We’ve combined two rooms into one and nothing is in the same place that it used to be. We’ve also got a whole new set of appliances including a new tap that gives immediate boiling water, but not yet including a fridge because of supply issues caused by something or other. For a more complete description see the first post: Problematic Process Change in the Kitchen – from CMO to FMO.

I’ve been amazed by just how many things we do without thinking in a kitchen, I think of them as stored procedures, subroutines that we use all the time without being conscious of doing them.

It’s been fascinating to witness just how difficult it has been to rewire the order of the tasks in these stored procedures, many of which I’ve been doing in the same way for over twenty years.

The most dramatic change has been caused by the new, wonderful, boiling water tap.

For as long as I can remember and certainly for the last twenty years the making of a hot beverage at home has been done in a certain order:

  1. Enter kitchen and go straight to the kettle.
  2. Fill kettle and turn on.
  3. Prepare beverage ready to receive hot water.
  4. Place hot water into prepared beverage.
  5. Dependent upon beverage: Construct beverage ready for consumption.
  6. Take beverage to the place where it’s going to be consumed.

That’s all there is, six steps, and one of those is dependent upon the type of drink being made. The kettle is always put on first because there is a lead-time between turning it on and hot water being available, everyone knows that it just makes sense.

With the boiling water tap there are now only five steps:

  1. Enter kitchen and retrieve a hot beverage receptacle.
  2. Prepare beverage ready to receive hot water.
  3. Place hot water into prepared beverage.
  4. Dependent upon beverage: Construct beverage ready for consumption.
  5. Take beverage to the place where it’s going to be consumed.

One of our superpowers as a species is our adaptability so you would expect that I would switch to this mode of operation within a few days of the change but that hasn’t been the case. What makes this interesting it that the new procedure is almost identical to the one I’ve followed in various workplaces for more than twenty years also. Workplaces generally have boiling water on tap, just like our kitchen now does.

Yet, I still walk into the kitchen and look around for the kettle. My first instinct is to put the kettle on. I’m reasonably sure that if we put a kettle back into the kitchen I would subconsciously start to use it as the primary mechanism for boiling water just because it’s there.

People say that you need to do something for 21 days for it to become a new habit, but we are beyond that time now, and my routine has still not changed. For those of you who read my recent post on being wrong you’ll be interested to know that the 21 days for a new habit thing – also wrong.

This is where we get the “21 days” idea from:

“These, and many other commonly observed phenomena tend to show that it requires a minimum of about 21 days for an old mental image to dissolve and a new one to jell.”

Maxwell Waltz, Psycho-Cybernetics 1960

Notice the “a minimum of about”? Another of the many things that have lost their meaning as they’ve transitioned from research to soundbite.

More recent research suggests an average of 66 days but gives a range of “from 18 days to 254”. That’s a difference of 2 and a half weeks and over 9 months!

I’m not yet at 66 days average – I’m not expecting it to take 9 months though.

As well as the factor of time there’s clearly something about my stored procedures that are driven by context. Why else would I be able to follow one procedure without issue in one location, and struggle to follow an almost identical procedure in a different location?

The seemingly simple mental instruction to make a coffee is turning out to be more complex than I would have thought. The five simple steps I initially perceived each contains a multitude of interwoven complexities. Making a drink at home is different to making a drink in an office. Even the initiation is different, at home the decision to make a drink is always an individual one, in an office it’s sometimes a collective one. Ahead of making the decision to get up from my desk and move into another room is layered with all sorts of hidden impulses. My desire for a drink isn’t just about thirst, it’s also about opportunity, routine and many other factors.

It’s going to take me a while to get used to the new way of doing things. Each day brings a set of nudges towards embedding the new routines.

Aristotle, quoting someone else, wrote “Change in all things is sweet.” I’m not sure I can taste the sweetness just yet, but I think I know what he means.

Header Image: Wastwater and the screes beyond. Some days this valley is inundated with people clambering to the top of England’s highest peak. On other day, like this one, it’s a bit damp and you can have the place to yourself.

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