More on safety, rules and unintended consequences

Photo by ianmunroe


One of the questions people often ask me after they watch my No More Rules presentation concerns the issues of rules around safety. The logic goes something like this: even if we agree with you that rules are bad, sometimes, in the sake of safety, we have to make so many rules, after all, it saves people lives.

This is a worthy point that I don’t explain well enough in the presentation itself and is worth an additional short explanation.

Even in the presentation itself I emphasize that I don’t think all rules are bad. Rules are a legitimate way to regulate behavior. The point I am trying to make is two folded. First,when we do choose rules, there is a problem with the way we make them – they focus on limiting instead on unlimiting. Second, our overuse of rules is a problem.

Rules that are unlimiting, that create value, that protect are great rules. Like the rule that demands that every person in the operating room state his name in the beginning of the operation so there will be better communication. Because this is a rule that actually saves lives. It is a great rule.

There is a danger in the accumulation of rules. Richard Hackman, in Leading Teams, talks about the effects of over regulating the cockpit environment:

All the well-intentioned additions to procedure manuals, together with all the automated devices that have been introduced into cockpits and all the management directives intended to promote efficiency or passenger service, may be having what policy analysts call perverse effects…. It is certainly true that too much latitude for flight crews can result in a poorly disciplined cockpit in which members are unable to predict who is going to take what action next. But it also is true that too much standardization, even in the interest of safety, sometimes can perversely result in crews monitoring systems and executing procedures less attentively and deliberately than would be ideal – especially when, as usually is the case, the flight is routine and everything’s seems to be proceeding normally.

When you use too much rules, people forgo judgment!

In Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard the writers describe an example. They tell how a department manager in General Motors succeeded in making the Injury rate in this department drop 21 percent from previous levels (which was already one of the best in plants doing similar work). How?

Poppe threw out the old complicated policy and boiled down the new safety policy to two specific behaviors… that’s it.

Less rules, but rules that are tailored to the situation.

In the case of safety, many times the best way to create a safer environment is to use only design and not rules at all. It just take more time, effort and thinking. It is much easier to make a rule. But it is not necessarily the most effective way. In another part of Switch, the authors describe a machine that only operates if you press buttons with both your hands. That way you can’t endanger your hands even if you wanted to. No rules. Design!

Think about baby proofing an apartment – instead of telling the kid not to touch the obvious things, we create a safer environment. And when he does touch something (and he will, because we can’t think of anything), we need to make sure he learns a general lesson from that. If we only spend time telling him what he cannot do, how will he be able to develop judgment?

Rules are not bad by themselves. Rules are bad when used in the wrong places and in the wrong way. And they are especially bad when used in an excessive manner like we see in some of the dominant business practices in our society. It is true for safety as it is true for sales as it is true for any other field.

So again, let’s stop with the rules.



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