By Kevin Meyer
Don't worry folks, although the article I reference here is on regulation, my point is aimed at corporate policies and procedures as in this case they generally have the same problem. Let's see if I can tip-toe around the central theme of the article so I can make that point.
Organizational policies and procedures, and regulations, in the U.S. generally start from a perspective that every little nuance must be specified.
Government oversight of day care seems like a good idea—you wouldn't want children cooped up in an airless basement—but this proposal went far beyond basic health and safety.
The new rules would dictate exactly how to do just about everything: how many block sets ("at least two (2) … with a minimum of ten (10) blocks per set"), where the children can play with the blocks (on "a flat building surface" that is "not in the main traffic area") and when caregivers must wash their hands (before "eating food," "after wiping a child's nose," etc.).
This is the way regulation works in America: Regulators try to imagine every possible mistake and then dictate a solution. The complexity is astounding.
And we all know the behaviors that are thereby created. The folks being regulated… or "managed"… by such procedures then set out to identify the most narrow possible opening in the wall of excruciating detail, and then pry that opening apart to create a new opportunity. Then armies of lawyers… err… executives… jump into the fray to determine and litigate whether that opening was legit, and if it was, then the regulators… err… managers… then add another few thousand words to close the latest loophole.
Under a recent federal directive, the number of health-care reimbursement categories will soon increase from 18,000 to 140,000, including 21 separate categories for "spacecraft accidents" and 12 for bee stings. There are over 140 million words of binding federal statutes and regulations, and states and municipalities add several billion more.
We see it in the financial industry, we see it at a different level inside our own organizations. Take a look at your company policies and even assembly and operating procedures and work instructions. Yep, you know what I mean.
Regulation is deliberately designed to avoid human discretion—to create a regulatory code that is self-executing. By making rules as precise as possible, we hope to avoid bad judgment. The unfortunate side effect has been to preclude good judgment. Modern regulation doesn't just control undesirable practices—it indiscriminately controls all the work of regulated entities.
Taking responsibility is basically illegal in the modern regulatory state. A teacher can't maintain order in the classroom without filling out forms and facing a potential legal hearing. Judges sit on their hands, letting people sue for almost anything. An inspector feels that he has no choice but to shut down an unauthorized neighborhood lemonade stand—a rule is a rule.
As a side note, how many of you still throw new hires into a small windowless room with a five foot stack of documentation to read, and then after a day of speed reading consider the poor soul to be "trained"?
There is another way. Instead of regulations… procedures… that attempt to identify and control every option, how about results-based regulations and procedures that attempt to describe the desired outcome? Could this even be analogous to push- vs pull-based procedures?
In place of today's regulatory micromanagement, what we need is results-based regulation, with simpler rules tied to the outcomes they produce. What would such a regulatory system look like? In the first place, it would be radically simpler. Most bureaucratic detail could be scrapped, and law would become understandable again. The focus would shift from complicated rules to desired results: clean air, safe food, honest business.
Are any of you lean folks experienced in the results-based focus of TWI starting to get a twinge of understanding? Ya, me too – that's what prompted me to write this. How about a couple examples, the first from our friends across the pond that already use this method.
In Britain, financial institutions have to answer to such principles as "A firm must conduct its business with integrity" and "treat [customers] fairly." Applying those principles to Wall Street would provide ample authority for regulators to stop the next bubble without smothering credit transactions under thousands of pages of new rules.
I can already see some people getting squeamish about definitions. You've been living in a world of over-specification for too long. Change your perspective. Ok, I'll admit it shakes me a bit as well – how do you prevent abuse from the regulated as well as the regulator… the team member as well as the manager? The article continues with several suggestions along those lines, but the bottom line remains the same:
Specify what the desired result looks like, not every aspect that could contribute to the result. Then provide boundaries and specifics only on key contributors in the process – the "key points" in TWI parlance. Promote understanding of the process and result, not the creation of mindless automatons following a narrow, winding process path. Again, many similarities to TWI, which my company has found to be one the most powerful drivers of lean transformation and even a foundation for kaizen.
Jim Fernandez says
Yes, I think people who write regulations are too often thinking about enforcement instead of outcome. This happens to me once in a while as I implement Lean manufacturing. Must be a human frailty.
Let’s go back to the issue of rules regarding how many sets of blocks there should be for a day care center. If the rule was simple i.e. there shall be an adequate number of toys for the children. In case of a controversy the controllers and lawyers would have a hard time enforcing that rule. And then, heaven forbid, someone or even a judge might have to make a decision. We would actually have to make a judgement or take responsibility for the situation.
I hate to sound so negative about lawyers, but maybe all of those quotes, about how lawyers screw things up, are true. Actually aren’t most of our laws and regulations written by lawyers?
“Never stir up litigation. A worse man can scarcely be found than one who does this. Who can be more nearly a fiend than he who habitually overhauls the register of deeds in search of defects in titles, whereon to stir up strife, and put money in his pocket?”
— Abraham Lincoln July 1, 1850
I can just imagine the violation cited on my ticket from Officer Nancy of the “Department of Child Services and General Welfare”:
$25 – Failure to maintain minimum number of blocks in playset.
And God forbid if these wards of the state have the audacity to play with the blocks in the grass, clearly a violation of the ordinance which requires children to stack exactly 10 blocks, no more, no less, in an orderly fashion on “a flat building surface.” Presumably, a child is not breaking the law if they are alone on a flat roof with said blocks?
In addition, most block sets we’ve purchased over the years for my (as of today, still legal!) +2.1 children per state-sanctioned household are based on the 20th century relic known as the “alphabet”, which, last time I checked Wikipedia, is somewhere north of 20 letters, not 10.
Perhaps the New-speak alphabet is only 10 letters long?
Very interesting article. Jim Fernandez, I like how you think, my friend, and great quote by the way. Most laws are written by lawyers, and most laws are created in order to cover somebodies behind in case something happens. Most of the time though, I think a lot of recent legislation is a bit overbearing.
This is simple but thought provoking.
As an HR Manager, with a past life of direction running lean production, I’m thinking about this in a multitude of ways and I’m going to mull this around for a while… How can we reinvent policy and procedure to A)actually help the business become leaner and stronger and B) give our associates a feeling of not being confined.
Is there a like button?
There’s no way to rule innocent men. The only power government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren’t enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws. – Ayn Rand
Jim Fernandez says
Wow Jim, That’s a great quote. I love it!!
Here’s my funny little twist on that quote.
There’s no way to control efficient, problem solving workers. The only power lean manufacturing has is the power to crack down on poorly performing workers. Well, when there aren’t enough poorly performing workers, lean manufacturing creates them. Lean manufacturing establishes so many rules that it becomes impossible for workers to function efficiently on their own and they become poorly performing workers.
Rick Bohan says
I agree with your overall point but let me tell a quick story that illuminates the position the regulations writers are in. Several years back I was talking with the superintendent at my boy’s school district. She told a story of a high schooler who had been caught red-handed stealing from another kid and was being disciplined. The culprit’s father, “litigating” against the punishment, asked the principal, “Do you have a written policy that explicitly forbids stealing?”
Another story: Also a few years ago, at a seminar my little agency conducted on ISO 9000, there was a spirited debate as to whether documents could be written in pencil.
When I taught at a local university, I assigned papers. Students wanted specific criteria regarding number of pages, number of words, spacing between lines, that sort of thing.
You get my point, I’m sure. My guess is that regulators don’t get some sort of evil pleasure writing silly regs. It’s just that they know, they KNOW, someone somewhere will say, “I say one block for every fifty kids is adequate. What are you gonna do about it?”
Rick Bohan says
As to Jim’s comment above, if an organization, in its efforts to implement lean concepts and tools, “establishes so many rules that it becomes impossible for workers to function efficiently on their own and they become poorly performing workers”, it’s doing it completely, utterly, entirely wrong and will certainly fail at those efforts.