Thursday, August 23, 2012

Break All the Rules

I am borrowing the title of a popular management book because it fits the theme I want to talk about:  addressing rules that appear as barriers.   What got me started was Al Norval’s post from the Lean Thinking blog entitled, Wisdom vs. Bureaucracy. 
Every day we are faced with a rule and we are given the choice of obeying the rule or breaking the rule. For example, if you commute to work in your car and you have to use an interstate highway that is not clogged, how often do you go faster than the speed limit?  Come on, raise your hand.  You are breaking a rule.  We all know there is a risk in breaking that rule so we weigh the risk of being caught breaking it versus our perception of safely travelling to our destination in a timely manner.  In living life we experience that choice obeying or breaking a rule.  As parents, there are behaviors that we follow in setting rules for our children. There is a point in time where rules become useless, most often when they are not enforced. The question becomes, why do we still have unenforceable rules?
I am not advocating in the mass revocation of all rules.  In most cases, there was a purpose for that rule.  As improvement professionals, part of our job is to question and this is area we MUST put emphasis on: questioning a rule’s purpose.
Rules come in two forms, the written type and the perceived type.  I liken them as Bureaucracy and Excuse. Al Norval talks about the first type in his blog entry and how it is often easy to hide behind these types of rules to avoid “risk.”  These types of rules are based on easy fixes—someone’s idea of a low cost way to avoid a future problem without regard to consequence and its ease of implementation.  They are often the most frustrating and damaging—low level clerks enforce the rule in instances where judgment is needed to solve a situation never thought of when the rule was created.   With the rise of a new situation, we create another rule so the bureaucrat knows how to respond. Eventually, the low level bureaucrat has more rules than they are capable of handling and throw their hands up in exasperation and create gridlock because one rule’s interpretation is in violation of another rule. 
The more difficult one to overcome is the “I have been doing it that way for X amount of years and it has worked for me so far” rule.  Unfortunately, this type of response comes from a subject matter expert who is well respected.  It is often a defense mechanism; the older we get the less is our change tolerance.  This type of rule is more noxious. We often stop right there without having the experts explain from where their interpretation is based.  Usually, the comment is reinforced with a historical litany of past happenings that caused them to do the things that they do. 
What’s a person to do?  I don’t win all my battles but I find a little determination, a smile, and a variant of the question why go a long way to at least getting the person to think about why do they do what they do. What we often forget when confronting rules is that the executors of rules are people.  Often, we treat the “rule enforcers” with disdain and exasperation.  This behavior makes them respond in a manner less than respectful to our particular problem.  By understanding this condition, showing respect, and trying to understand why the rule exists, allow us to understand, empathize, and often offer solutions that can be beneficial to both parties. Yes, there will be times that you cannot change the bureaucracy.  But at least you will have learned something and, hopefully, offer a novel solution that can be the basis of a future improvement.  Barriers can often be sources of future opportunities.
Until next time!
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