Policy & Process in the Blood

Posted on April 14, 2012

I’m highly introspective… far more than I would actually like to be.  I’m one of those strange individuals to whom if you said “Do you realize your being a jerk right now?” I’d actually admit “Yes, I’m sorry about that, I’m trying to find a way to rectify it unsuccessfully.”

Despite that obsessive level of awareness, nothing can tell you more about who you are then your children.  In particular, by observing things your children do that you never taught them, they just started doing of their own accord because “it seemed right”.  Genetics at work.

I fight frequently with people about documenting processes.  But maybe I’m just anal?  Then the other day my son comes to me and shows me this:

This is Glenn, my eldest son (6 years old).  He wanted some lemonade, but mom and I were busy.  He decided it might help if he simplified his request into a process.  You can see here that we start with a bottle of lemonade, then we pour it into a glass, then WHAMO!  we have our amazingly refreshing beverage to enjoy.  It is the perfect process with an input, output, and processing in the middle.  Brilliant, and he hasn’t even been to business school yet.  How much simpler does process get?

What about policy?  Policy is just a business word for “rules”, nothing more.  In my opinion, the worlds most amazing and effective policy is this one:

That yellow line is policy.  Its not a brick wall, but we treat it like one.  Thanks to that little bit of paint two cars can drive towards each other at 70 MPH, passing with only 6 ft between them, without fear.  It doesn’t get simpler or more powerful than that.

Parents and authority figures in general, tend to layer into a child the concept of right and wrong as absolutes. Take the cookie and you shall be punished, so don’t take the cookie! All throughout our culture we do this, define a rules and corresponding punishments. The result is a general fear of rules, because they are seemingly there for the sole purpose of justifying punishment.

Any rule, any law, any policy, can be viewed as a guide or as a guillotine. When I asked many of my peers what they thought about policy a surprising number quickly answered “Its there so that you can fire people.” Its shocking how many people believe that. One would think that policy is there to enforce lessons learned in the past, as a guide for decision making, pre-computed solutions to problems which might be difficult to conflicting. So then why is it that they are considered simply a justification for punishment? Inconsistency of course… everyone seems to ignore, discount, or outright disregard policy on a day-to-day basis and it only comes to peoples attention when someone is being called out.

Policy and process are wonderful things. At least, they can be. They are the means by which we share knowledge within an organization. Common tasks, problems, and dilemmas can be quickly handled in a tried and true way, consistent throughout the organization, because we have policy and process. But in order for them to work, there are some ground rules, if you don’t follow them they are doomed to be the millstones of frustration most of us see them as:

  • They need to be simple and straight-forward for the average employee.
  • They need to be indexed, so that they can be easily found.
  • They need to be relevant to the business, not just copied from someone else.
  • They need to be consistent, so that they do not contradict each other.
  • They need to be helpful and solve real problems.
  • They need to be up to date. Old policy and process can be worse than none at all, because people are afraid of the reliability and may waste time debating a course of action, which is exactly what process and policy should speed up.

The last point is the hardest. Knowledge management is still something we’re shitty at. Wiki’s have helped a lot over the last decade by making everything searchable and empowering everyone to update documents quickly and easily. But the fundamental problem is that of scaling. Not scaling the infrastructure but of the human mind. Many a sci-fi story has depicted the person who desire to know everything, and when the wish was granted, their head promptly exploded in one way or another. In many large companies when you hire on you’ll receive a book or binder with all the company policies… did you read it? Of course not: tl:dr.

Thus, what we’re really talking about here is culture. Genetics. Your children get them from you in the blood, but in a company we must teach them to others through words and actions. Preferably when employees are new, through on the job training/mentoring/tasking. Will you ignore policy and process? If you don’t care, they are likely useless crap anyways, and everyone can fend for themselves and hopefully get it right. But what if instead they were useful, and they were a reference available to simplify life? You don’t read the dictionary, but you know that its there and handy when you need it… so should be process and policy.

I feel passionate about these things because I hate to see employees stressed out because they aren’t sure what to do or how to do something. Useless anxiety. Wasted energy. Muda. I see managers beat on their people for not knowing… but who’s fault is it really? There are hard problems in the world, lets focus the energy on new problems and codify what we’ve learned in the past for everyone to benefit from. This is the nature of continuous improvement… building a collective body of corporate knowledge and continuously expanding, refining, and even replacing it when appropriate.