Policies, procedures and paralysis

Whether you’re managing a multimillion dollar research and development project or controlling access to the petty cash, the downside of holding power is the responsibility that accompanies it. If the project fails, or the coffee money goes missing, you’re the one who has to explain it, and maybe even pay for it with your job or your lunch money.

We live in an uncertain world, and good intentions are no guarantee of success, so we develop policies and procedures to provide ourselves with a measure of security and provide the illusion of control.

I’ve never heard of a company without its own set of policies and procedures, and the bigger the company the more comprehensive and exhaustive those procedures become. If you’ve been infected by the ISO 9000 bug, you’ve got a second set of shelves full of descriptions of how those policies and procedures are actually being used. In fact, you probably have policies and procedures on how to revise those policies and procedures and ensure that the revised policies and procedures comply with your policies and procedures.

Feh! It’s no wonder we never accomplish anything; some days, we’re too busy complying with – well, you get the idea.

Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, in their modernized version of Dante’s Inferno, provided a deliciously, evilly-ironic image: that of the ancient bureaucrat who invented the notion of filling out forms in triplicate, now working for Hell’s personnel department. After millennia of loyal service, he’s finally received permission to retire. Problem is, he has to fill out his retirement application on a clay tablet, and the heat from the inferno keeps baking the clay solid before he can complete his application. There are days when I empathize with him.

Putting aside my healthy cynicism about any management fad that keeps legions of consultants lucratively employed, ISO 9000 provides one compelling benefit: self-examination. An ISO 9000 compliance exercise provides an unparalleled opportunity to take stock of what you’ve been doing, and though the certification process doesn’t force you to make any changes, the effort you spend describing them provides an awfully strong incentive to fix what isn’t working.

Naturally enough, the people responsible for adherence to existing policies have a strong, vested interest in ensuring that any changes in the policies preserve their measure of power, and provide protection should the processes fail. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, since it would be ludicrous to promote policies that discourage risk-taking or encourage failure. The problem arises when the manager’s need for control and security conflicts with the worker’s need to actually work. Even when a process doesn’t seem particularly bound by red tape, and appears perfectly logical, years of accreted bureaucracy may still have rendered it inefficient.

What’s missing from many policy reviews my colleagues have discussed is a careful consideration of the needs of the people who actually carry out the processes. As a result, the reviews tend to perpetuate the status quo or produce purely cosmetic changes. That’s a shame, since the people that managers interview while they document the actual processes can provide the deepest insights into how the process is failing them, and perhaps even suggestions on how it can be improved.

As we increasingly move our processes off paper and into software, and particularly into e-commerce and Web-based solutions, we should pause and examine the underlying processes based on the needs of those who must follow them. Moving an inefficient process on-line rarely improves the process, and the careful analysis that should precede any such a move offers a golden opportunity to make the process work better for everyone.

Making this re-examination a formal policy is one policy I think everyone would welcome.

Hart (geoff-h@mtl.feric.ca) is a translator, technical writer, editor and a senior member of the Society for Technical Communication. He lives in Pointe-Claire, Que., where he works for a forestry research institute.