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Retire Rickety Rules

Complexity shows up on many forms – and in this week’s blog post we look at the complexity that comes from business rules – and explore how retiring rickety can unleash creativity, provide higher levels of customer service and engage employees.

 Rules serve a purpose – but we seldom critically examine the rules that we allow to govern our work lives, let alone intentionally challenge them.

 This post is #7 in a series of posts in a 10 Step Process to simplify your work life and to get more focus on the things that really matter. Each step, in and of itself, will enable you to simplify to focus, but I do encourage you to do Step 2: Setting Unambiguous and Unwavering Priorities prior to taking steps 3 to 10.

And a quick reminder:  it’s not too late to join the 10-step work simplification challenge! You can revisit all the steps, get additional hints and resources and share your progress and by joining our LinkedIn Group: LinkedIn Group: 10 Steps to Simplify Work


Step 7: Retire Rickety Rules

As I write this post, I’ve come to realize that I am a rule challenger. Which is a bit startling as I am the least likely person to be an “in your face” rebel. I think, instead, I am a quiet insurgent. Gently questioning why certain things are the way they are and then quietly finding a way around things that seem, to me, to be nonsensical.

Some examples:

  • When I applied to Krannert School of Business for a master’s degree in 1990, the rule was that students only attended full time for two years. I lobbied. I met with administrators. I wrote letters. Finally they relented, making me the first part time student in their MBA program.
  • The going business “rule” when I started consulting was to find ways to compete with others doing similar work. To stand alone. To carefully guard your IP and processes. Instead, I broke with tradition and found ways to successfully collaborate with others – driving deep value for my clients and myself.

Let’s get clear, rules have a purpose. They are designed to create order. To establish boundaries. To avoid haphazard and misguided effort. To avoid ethical failures.

There are red line rules. The ones you don’t cross because doing so is unlawful. I pay my taxes with great regularity. I file my 1099’s. And there are business rules I call green line rules. These are the ones I adhere to, even when painful. These are standards I maintain, because on a deeper level they guide my actions to be in alignment with my values. I keep my clients whole. I act in their best interest. I insist the any business travel we do reflects the way we would spend our own money.

For this step, we are exempting these rules from scrutiny.

Instead, we’ll take a hard look at those business rules that we follow, day in and day out. Here is a working definition:

A business rule defines or constrains some aspect of business and always resolves to either true or false. It specifically involves terms, facts and rules. Business rules are intended to assert business structure or to control or influence the behavior of the business. Business rules describe the operations, definitions and constraints that apply to an organization. Business rules can apply to people, processes, corporate behavior and computing systems in an organization, and are put in place to help the organization achieve its goals. Even though a system of strategic processes govern business rules, business rules are not strategic themselves; they are directive.

These “rules” or procedures add complexity to organizational life. There are processes to be followed, forms to be completed, protocols to be followed. All, in their inception, were created for a reason that appeared to make good sense at the time. Many, in their execution, are blindly followed and rarely questioned.

One or two of these “rules” may be palatable. The problem is that they accumulate. One after another, until they begin to stifle worthwhile effort, hamstring progress, consuming time well beyond their value and adding unnecessary complexity.

So, in the effort to focus on what is most important, we must ask ourselves where we are spending time complying with rules, policies and procedures that either could be simplified or eliminated. Perhaps that 10-page report could be simplified into a simpler dashboard. Maybe the monthly all hands meeting could be held quarterly with a crisper and more focused agenda. What if the rules governing your six-step quality process could be stripped down to the three steps that contribute to 99.5% of your quality issues?

We’ve seen the dramatic results when innovators challenge long-standing business rules. The founders of Airbnb rewrote the time-honored rule that being in the accommodations business required owning motels, hotels and resorts. Uber was founded on challenging the notion that a taxicab was a big yellow care provided in a fleet of vehicles. Apple reformulated the rule that our phone was only for communication. Questioning rules fuels innovation.

I suspect you’ve also experienced extraordinarily frustrating and poor customer service when the employee you were dealing with was constrained by rules that negated their ability to correct problems or resolve issues in a timely or customer friendly manner. Questioning rules can free employee to provide exceptional customer experiences.

And without doubt, each of us has spent countless hours complying to internal rules and procedures that added work, time and effort without any commensurate uptick in output, productivity and results. This includes the 3 page request form to attend a 2 hour seminar, the monthly report that you suspect no one reads anymore or the mandatory time reporting that needed to be done in so much detail that it took more time to complete it than the time to actually do the work. Questioning rules can free time and effort from paper chases to purposeful productivity.

There are also the “rules” that worked just fine in a prior time but are counterproductive in today’s world. A great example is the strict enforcement of fixed office hours in which you are expected to be in your seat – and only allowed to leave for a pre-defined lunch break. That rule may be absolutely essential for some roles but may be terribly limiting for others who might be more productive in other locations or with a more flexible work schedule. Questioning rules can help us create a company culture that is less about enforcement and more about engagement.

So I challenge you to examine what rickety rules you are blindly complying to. Do these challenges within your own locus of control, looking at rules you’ve either self-imposed on yourself and others or those that you would have the ability to advocate and initiate either their removal or simplification.

Start with the simple, move to the complex. Continue stripping away the unnecessary or outdated. Keep at it and being a rule re-inventor will become a habit.

Challenge One: Five Why a Few of Your Business Rules (30 minutes)

This is a team exercise that uses the Five Why process to go deeper into the real reason a rule exists. Pull together a group of people and have some fun with this!

  1. Create a list of ridiculous business rules and sacred cows.

Set up the meeting to be fun – but focused. Set a ground rule that any rule that seems outdated, cumbersome or unnecessary can make the list. Try to get at least 10 rules to consider on the list.

  1. Pick one to use the 5 Why process on

Don’t spend too much time picking your first one. Just start. It may be one that several mentioned or one that is glaringly obvious or one that is constantly painful.

After you’ve picked one, do the 5 Why process. If you’ve not done that before, this article will walk you through the process.

  1. Determine if this is a rule that should be retired or re-thought

The 5 why process should reveal the true underlying reason for the rule. Once you are to that point, you can ask:

  • Does this rule still serve a worthwhile purpose?
  • What would be the consequences of killing this rule?
  • What benefits would occur if we killed this rule?
  • Are there ways to accomplish the intent of this rule in ways that are simpler?

Challenge Two: Kill a Stupid Rule (10 minutes to 10 hours)

For this challenge, take a rule identified in your 5 Why process as a beneficial rule to retire. Here I’m not talking about just ignoring it or not complying with it but taking clear steps to eliminate or simplify the rule.

The amount of work involved in sun-setting a rule will vary according to the type of rule you identified:

  • If it was an informal team “rule” – all you need is clarity on eliminating it and agreement to go forward
  • If it is a SOP or other formalized rule, there will be a process you’ll follow to get the rule streamlined or struck from the record
  • If other areas are involved in the rule (upstream or downstream), you’ll need to work with them to manage the process of retirement.

The key here is to be intentional about dismissing the rule – and clear with all those who the rule impacts. Kill it cleanly and clearly or else, at some point in the future, it will revive in some form or fashion.

If you’d like to learn more about Killing Stupid Rules, see Lisa Bodell’s book Why Simple Wins: Escape the Complexity Trap and Get to Work that Matters

Good luck….go forward….retire rickety rules!

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