Ensconcing Paranoia in Rules

Silly boy you got so much to live for
So much to aim for, so much to try for
You blow it all with, paranoia
You’re so insecure you, self-destroyer
paranoia, they destroy ya

It’s been over a week since the United incident where Dr. David Dao was forcibly removed from a flight.  It takes about that long for the hysteria to die down and for some meaningful analysis to start coming out.

Yes, the airline was within its right to remove anyone for safety reasons, and perhaps for other reasons – though there’s some doubt that accommodating employees after a passenger has already been seated is in their contract of carriage.  Yes, not getting those employees to the next flight could have created a travel nightmare for many more customers on a different flight.  Yes, Dr. Dao could have just complied, and yes he has an interesting history.  Apparently United didn’t offer up to the full amount authorized to bribe passengers to give up their seats.  And, yes, the actual altercation was created by the Chicago airport police.

All of that finger-pointing and victim shaming misses the point.  A point that both The Wall Street Journal and Harvard Business Review eventually discussed a few days ago: the real problem is an extreme rules-based culture at United that makes no allowance for situational judgment.

My subconscious must have realized this earlier as I couldn’t get my favorite tune from The Kinks out of my head from the day the United story broke.  A party staple from my college days, which I guess dates me a bit.

Paranoia, they destroy ya… And there you have the root cause of most rule-based organizational cultures.  Paranoia.

As HBR describes, “The public reacted to the video with horror. Those flight attendants must have been appalled, too, as they watched the customer — who just a few minutes earlier was supposed to have been greeted on the plane with smiles and welcomes — being dragged, face bleeding, past other customers. What must they be thinking now? We were powerless to intervene, they might say. Civility was no longer an option. We called security. That was what management told us to do.

Powerless, because they were controlled by rules.  The depth of those rules is discussed in the WSJ article:

Like most other airlines, United follows strict rules on every aspect of handling its passengers, from how to care for unaccompanied minors to whether someone gets a whole can of Coke.

Deviating from the rules is frowned upon; employees can face termination for a foul-up, according to people familiar with the matter. At United, this has helped create a rules-based culture where its 85,000 employees are reluctant to make choices not in the “book,” according to former airline executives, current employees and people close to United.

Of course some procedures do require strict consistency and adherence to ensure safety.  Some rules are necessary.  But it’s important to also understand that rules can remove the ability for decisions to be made based on specific context and circumstance, and in effect assume every hole is round and can be filled by a properly-specified peg.  An organizational culture driven by an overabundance of rules indicates a lack of trust in the caliber, training, and experience of employees – and a paranoia for what might happen.  Yes, United is probably paranoid about the impact on the bottom line of too many people getting a whole can of Coke.

Instead, they could hire great people (perhaps they already do), provide a clear understanding of corporate objectives, draw some general guidelines, and describe the impact of potential decisions, and then set them free to make the best decisions at the right time.  This is the essence of respect for people.  Leveraging the value in brains instead of focusing on the hands.

Companies like United need to cultivate good judgment, and free their employees to use it.

Some companies do.  Netflix has it built into their culture code.

There is no vacation policy, and the travel and expense policy is literally five words: “Act in Netflix’s best interests.” That’s it.

Netflix believes high-performance people should be free to make decisions, and those decisions need to be grounded in context. Mission, vision, and value statements do not create context. To demonstrate this, Netflix’s presentation provides the example of how Enron’s value statement included “integrity.” Real company values are shown by who gets rewarded for embodying desired behaviors and skills. The document goes on to describe the primary Netflix values and the associated behaviors.

At Netflix, flexibility is more important over the long term than efficiency.

At Gemba Academy we have adopted a very similar culture code.   We have have very few policies and procedures, which helps us be very agile and customer-centric.  This has been a major driver of our success.

What would have happened if United allowed – even encouraged – employees to make context-based decisions instead of being bound by paranoia-driven rules?  A flight attendant might have said “there must be a better way,” offered more money, found someone else, or come up with an even more creative alternative.  And United would not have lost a billion or more in market capitalization over the next few days.  A quick call to arrange a Netjet private jet for Dr. Dao, albeit extreme, would have been comparably cheap.  Or a Netjet for the employees they needed to get to the next flight.

HBR branches off into an interesting side note, discussing the potential impact of increasingly AI/algorithm-driven decisions.  Perhaps the ultimate rules-based decision-making?

Machines follow orders. People use discretion. Learning the importance of that truism is the lesson of this awful situation, and it will be a lesson of growing relevance and application as algorithms and machines play ever larger roles in service delivery.

Something to keep in mind.  In the meantime, hire great people, train them on the clear “why?” of the business, then set them free.  It might keep you out of the news.