Seeking Consistency with Flexibility
This is part of an ongoing series of design principles
improving systems. (See last month for "Reducing Interruptions.")
Few people argue with the need for consistency. When
does things the same way, it is easier for them to cross-cover each
easier to track down the root cause of errors, and easier to repair a
when it goes out of whack. Consistency makes it so that anyone on a
help a customer, and customers don't have to rely on their favorite
in order get their needs met.
Most people also agree that there is a need for
flexibility. Sometimes the rules need to be bent or outright changed.
need to be given. Flexibility is the antidote for red tape which binds
to inaction in the name of consistency.
The paradox is that on the surface flexibility seems to
in the face of consistency. Doesn't every exception violate the
of consistency? Doesn't enforcement of rules inevitably lead people to
like they are simply a number? How can we give up standardization
suffering anarchy? How can we enforce rules without becoming
There are a few simple principles which will make it
to undo the paradox, and recognize that consistency and flexibility are
and not opposites.
Principle #1: Standards should be created by the
doing the work. In most organizations, standards for operation
by managers. The "rules" are then usually put into a manual which
dust on a shelf because the workforce has discovered the "rules" don't
very well. Standards need to be developed by people doing the work. An
beginning point is to have them write a training manual for newcomers.
manual can't be completed without getting everyone to agree how to do
If continuous improvement is part of the organization's lifeblood, then
manual should be updated at least once every six months to reflect the
Principle #2: Let people doing the work have
to make exceptions. When exceptions are given, then ask, "What's wrong
the standards?" instead of asking, "What's wrong with the person?"
bureaucracies enforce their red tape by hunting for "bad apples"
a worker gives an exception. This has to stop. It needs to start being
that when an exception is given, it is because the worker has found
wrong with the standard.
People doing the same work should meet regularly in
to discuss the exceptions they have been giving. The group can share
they would have responded. The group can then decide if the standards
the training manual need to be changed. Managers should insure that
about standards get brought forward to the group for discussion.
Principle #3: Buy-in should be the driver of
not coercion. This is the most controversial of these three
principles. Most bureaucracies are accustomed to being driven from the
top and designing
systems that ensure top-down control. Consequently managers are given
job of making sure everyone is toeing the line and following the rules.
is the root of red tape which leads both employees and customers to
like they are victims.
Instead of using coercion, the workforce should be
ways of doing things so that they can buy into the rules which
are made. This requires that managers be facilitators who can both
issues and ensure that all voices are heard. The top must give up its
for control, and instead recognize that it should be organizing people
that learning is rapid and wide-spread. Flexibility is then viewed as a
force for changing standards and helping better meet the needs of
In the end, when all is said and done, we need to
which are flexibly consistent and consistently
For more on bureaucracies