Most people in organizations complain about policies, procedures and red tape. These complaints are legitimate. Most procedures are completely unnecessary and designed to frustrate productivity rather than enhance it. Some even cross the line into the absurd. One company I know created a flow chart and procedure for making coffee, posting it next to the coffee maker in the sad little corner of the world that passed for a break room.
And the coffee was godawful.
The reason for having policies and procedures is to enforce consistency. Consistency is important to management because they have been trained to value efficiency, not a bad thing if considered by itself. What is rarely if ever considered is the dulling effect of consistency on the human beings charged with implementing the procedures. Having to do the same thing over and over again in exactly the same way may improve efficiency but it dulls the spirits of those assigned to the task.
Fortunately, the rebellious nature of the human species ensures that most policies and procedures are never implemented in the fashion intended by the designers. Most people I’ve worked with, be they on the manufacturing floor or in the professional cubicles, don’t bother to look at the process maps or consult the flow charts, preferring instead to do things their own way. Most policies are not designed to cope with the variables of a chaotic environment, so people often need to ignore them to get the job done.
However, those same people who ignore policies governing their own jobs often use policies as defensive weapons to avoid work and hassle. “I’m sorry, we can’t do that, it’s the policy,” is still an effective and frequently-used means of protecting yourself against customers and other invaders who have the gall to ask you to help them with a problem. In this case, policies become a way to control through status, for you always raise your status when you frustrate the advances of an opponent. “It’s not in the policy” is the organizational equivalent of “shove it.”
Here the human spirit and its need to manifest independence comes to the rescue once again. People who are frustrated by the procedural tactics that another department is using to block their march towards progress are incredibly creative at going around the system to get what they need. When I first ran a Human Resources department, the managers amazed me with their ingenuity in working around the various policies we were throwing at them. We finally got tired of the game and threw out most of the policies, replacing them with values statements that allowed people to exercise judgment. Instead of trying to control them by quoting rule, chapter and verse, we removed the status motive from the picture and began to work with managers instead of being at war with them all the time.
For some organizations, though, such an approach would be heresy. There would be lawyers and compliance experts screaming about the risks (although you could probably find an equal number of attorneys arguing just as persuasively to get rid of the policies if you can’t get people to follow them). There are also many people in the more traditional organizations who have built their careers on the ability to memorize internal procedures, and to ask these people to think for a change would probably send them into catatonic shock. Methinks the fact that they protest too much means that the people who want to protect the existence of policies are concerned with something other than safeguarding the interests of the organization. Policies and procedures owe their existence to habit and the fetish for control—not to the need to safeguard company assets.
Perhaps someday the species will advance to the point where we begin to trust that the vast majority of human beings want to feel competent in their work and begin to put our energies into helping them realize their potential them instead of controlling them. Policies and procedures ensure that our organizations are designed around the lowest common denominator, which is one reason why most people feel disrespected and alienated when they are at work. The sad truth is that most people want to be better than our organizations allow them to be.