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November, 2000
Seeking Consistency with Flexibility

This is part of an ongoing series of design principles for improving systems. (See last month for "Reducing Interruptions.") Few people argue with the need for consistency. When everyone does things the same way, it is easier for them to cross-cover each other, easier to track down the root cause of errors, and easier to repair a system when it goes out of whack. Consistency makes it so that anyone on a team can help a customer, and customers don't have to rely on their favorite "heroes" 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. Sometimes exceptions need to be given. Flexibility is the antidote for red tape which binds organizations to inaction in the name of consistency.

The paradox is that on the surface flexibility seems to fly in the face of consistency. Doesn't every exception violate the principle of consistency? Doesn't enforcement of rules inevitably lead people to feeling like they are simply a number? How can we give up standardization without suffering anarchy? How can we enforce rules without becoming dictatorial?

There are a few simple principles which will make it possible to undo the paradox, and recognize that consistency and flexibility are complementary and not opposites.

Principle #1: Standards should be created by the people doing the work. In most organizations, standards for operation are set by managers. The "rules" are then usually put into a manual which gathers dust on a shelf because the workforce has discovered the "rules" don't work very well. Standards need to be developed by people doing the work. An easy beginning point is to have them write a training manual for newcomers. The manual can't be completed without getting everyone to agree how to do things. If continuous improvement is part of the organization's lifeblood, then the manual should be updated at least once every six months to reflect the ongoing changes.

Principle #2: Let people doing the work have authority to make exceptions. When exceptions are given, then ask, "What's wrong with the standards?" instead of asking, "What's wrong with the person?" Most bureaucracies enforce their red tape by hunting for "bad apples" whenever a worker gives an exception. This has to stop. It needs to start being understood that when an exception is given, it is because the worker has found something wrong with the standard.

People doing the same work should meet regularly in order to discuss the exceptions they have been giving. The group can share how they would have responded. The group can then decide if the standards in the training manual need to be changed. Managers should insure that disagreements about standards get brought forward to the group for discussion.

Principle #3: Buy-in should be the driver of consistency, 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 the job of making sure everyone is toeing the line and following the rules. This is the root of red tape which leads both employees and customers to feeling like they are victims.

Instead of using coercion, the workforce should be discussing ways of doing things so that they can buy into the rules which eventually are made. This requires that managers be facilitators who can both raise issues and ensure that all voices are heard. The top must give up its desire for control, and instead recognize that it should be organizing people so that learning is rapid and wide-spread. Flexibility is then viewed as a prime force for changing standards and helping better meet the needs of customers.

In the end, when all is said and done, we need to create organizations which are flexibly consistent and consistently flexible.

"Reducing Memorization"
For more on bureaucracies

Celebrating mistakes is the first step in learning.

People won't grow unless they believe in the future.

Big Business, Big Government, and Big Unions have one thing in common. They have all forgotten why they were created in the first place.

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©All materials copyrighted 1998, 1999 and 2000 by Ron Turner and Linda Turner. All rights reserved.

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