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Denise Robitaille


The Elephant in the Room

You don’t have to be blind

Published: Tuesday, May 8, 2007 - 22:00

Three blind men sat in the market place. One said to the others: ‘Would it not be a wondrous thing to know the nature of an elephant?’ His companion agreed, ‘Yes, it would indeed be wondrous.’

A merchant standing nearby overheard the men’s conversation. He went over to the trio and said, ‘I have been listening to your conversation and I believe that I could get an elephant and bring it here to you. Is this something you would like?’ The three men nodded eagerly, saying, ‘Yes, oh please, sir. This would certainly help us to know the nature of an elephant.’

The merchant went away and returned several hours later, leading a docile pachyderm. The first blind man stood before the great beast and felt his long, muscular, curling trunk. As he sat down, the second man rose and, standing before the elephant, he felt the animal’s two sturdy front legs. Finally, the last blind man, who had been sitting behind the elephant, rose and felt the creature’s insubstantial tail. When they had all finished, the merchant led the elephant away.

Afterwards, the men sat down and began to discuss what they’d learned about the nature of an elephant. The first blind man said, ‘An elephant is like a great sinuous snake, curling and grasping. It is flexible and strong.’ The second blind man said, ‘Why, no! An elephant is like two great trees rooted to the ground. It may be strong, but it is rigid and not easily moved.’ The third blind man was utterly befuddled. He protested, ‘An elephant is not strong at all. It is a small and wispy thing that blows in the slightest breeze.’

The men argued long and late into the night. But they could never arrive at a conclusion as to the nature of an elephant, because none had beheld the entire beast.

This delightful tale comes to us out of India’s rich folklore. Like so many of the older tales from around the world, it’s always a little surprising to see the applicability to our modern lives.

The three men are attempting to understand something without having adequate information. No matter how hard they try, they can’t come up with a correct image of the elephant because each has segmented and incomplete facts. They also are hampered by an inability to perceive the various working parts as a whole. The rigid legs that can plant themselves firmly make it possible for the animal to use its trunk for lifting. And while first impressions may suggest that they are unmoving, additional observation would let us see that elephants travel extensively. There’s a lot that goes into understanding the nature of an elephant.

It’s this same concept that underlies the systems approach to management. To be able to manage an organization’s multiple processes effectively it’s essential to understand how they’re interrelated and the effect that each component has on the other member parts.

Cultivating this approach will help you to improve the effectiveness of many of your processes. The following are tools that help get the complete picture.

  • Root cause analysis: Provides a better understanding of the nature of a problem by considering the various, sometimes seemingly unrelated, contributing factors.
  • Corrective action: Provides a clearer view of all the elements that need to be considered when developing and implementing an effective corrective action plan.
  • Failure modes and effects analysis (FMEA): Provides a broader perspective on the factors that could cause a product defect or a process breakdown.
  • Communication: Provides effective and inclusive communication to ensure that the interests of stakeholders are not ignored and that individuals understand requirements and instructions.
  • Design control: Provides consistent adherence to practices that ensure reviews of requirements, risks, supplier issues, manufacturability and capacity constraints.

A systems approach to management is nothing more than ensuring that everyone understands your organization—your entire beast.


About The Author

Denise Robitaille’s picture

Denise Robitaille

Denise Robitaille is the author of thirteen books, including: ISO 9001:2015 Handbook for Small and Medium-Sized Businesses.

She is chair of PC302, the project committee responsible for the revision to ISO 19011, an active member of USTAG to ISO/TC 176 and technical expert on the working group that developed the current version of ISO 9004:2018. She has participated internationally in standards development for over 15 years. She is a globally recognized speaker and trainer. Denise is a Fellow of the American Society for Quality and an Exemplar Global certified lead assessor and an ASQ certified quality auditor.

As principal of Robitaille Associates, she has helped many companies achieve ISO 9001 registration and to improve their quality management systems. She has conducted training courses for thousands of individuals on such topics as auditing, corrective action, document control, root cause analysis, and implementing ISO 9001. Among Denise’s books are: 9 Keys to Successful Audits, The (Almost) Painless ISO 9001:2015 Transition and The Corrective Action Handbook. She is a frequent contributor to several quality periodicals.