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We’ve always done it that way!

Grace Hopper once said “The most dangerous phrase a manager can use is ‘we’ve always done it that way’”. Hopper was a pioneering computer scientist whose work was central to the development of one of the foundational high-level computer programming languages. Working in a fast moving technological domain where repeating previously successful strategies often ended disastrously, she understood that when we brush off new ideas, we end up falling down the same old holes.


Grace Hopper tinkering with her COBOL (COmmon Business Orientated Language) programming language.

What’s worrying is that “We’ve always done it that way” is often a key decision making factor when choosing the equipment we use in our premises.

This kind of appeal to tradition is something we come across often in the fire industry. An appeal to tradition basically makes two assumptions:

  • The ‘old way’ of doing things was proven correct when it was introduced
  • Past justifications for the ‘old way’ of doing things are still valid.

In reality, these assumptions can be incorrect. The ‘old way’ of doing things may have been introduced on incorrect grounds and past justifications often disappear into the ether, with circumstances (such as relevant legislation) changing with the times.

Let’s put this into the context of a fire door. For many years, fire doors have been fitted with hard-wired hold open devices like electromagnets. These devices allow your fire doors to be held open and when the fire alarm is triggered, power to the magnets is cut off and your fire doors close. “Great,” I hear you say, “all is as it should be.” But is it?

For years, fire safety policies have allowed these devices to be installed because “we’ve always done it that way”. But what about the dangers of remanence? Next time you walk past a magnetic hold open device, have a look at the main plate. You’ll see a little pin in the middle. Do you know what that’s for?

This little pin is the only thing preventing a big failure.

Fire safety people will tell you that magnets are fail to safe. These are the words they use: fail and safe. The truth is that magnets do fail because they stay magnetic after the current is switched off. And that’s what that little pin is for: to prevent against a known problem that constantly forces magnetic hold open devices to fail. These pins break easily and can come loose. And they get ridiculously hot, too. Just think about how that mounts up your electricity bill.

Despite this very real issue (never mind complications that can arise during installation or the dangers of poorly installed products) hard-wired electromagnets are still one of the most commonly used pieces of door furniture. Why?

Because “We’ve always done it that way!”

So because you’ve always done it that way, does that exclude you from looking at better ways of doing things? Because you’ve always done it that way, does the notion of something new scare you?

If your answer to those questions is no, me and thee need to talk. We do things differently at Fireco. Because that’s what we’ve always done.

‘If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.’
– Henry Ford

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