The Three Rules for Rules

By Jon Miller Published on March 8th, 2013

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Many people find even the idea of rules, standards and policies to be stifling. Poorly designed and executed rules can indeed be stifling. But so can working with a total lack of rules, standards and order. Rules are the foundation of continuous improvement and essential to a lean enterprise. Some years ago I wrote about the lean enterprise rules of three and here is another one:
The three rules for rules
1) Rules must be fair. This is the single hardest rule for setting rules. Leaders tend to set the rules. These leaders tend to already have privileges and advantages. They have the ability to skew rules to their favor, or even to design rules in a way to be unfair, to not apply to themselves. The first step, and test of whether rules, improvement and lean thinking will survive is to start with a basic agreement on a level of fairness and improve from there.
2) Rules must be followed. If rules are fair but not followed, either people don’t believe in fairness and you have a genuine people problem or the rules can’t be followed in practice. Such rules may be well-intentioned but in effect unfair, and need revision. If rules aren’t being followed, there is a reason. Proceed to the next rule and rewrite an improved rule.
3) Rules must be frequently improved. Taiichi Ohno taught us that there can be no kaizen without standards. He also taught us that rules could be poor, as long as the current agreed method was used and it was understood to be provisional, soon to be improved. Ohno also wanted managers and engineers to have to wash their hands several times each day because they were getting their hands dirty helping to improve the workplace.
Finally for those who would argue that fewer rules are better than many rules, I would say that they are in fact making up their own new rules every single time they do things a different or their own way. This desire for creativity should be satisfied by designing and redesign rules. If the purpose of the rules are agreed and viewed as fair, energy will flow in the direction no of beating the rules or evading them, but in the direction of achieving the purpose of them.

  1. John Hunter

    March 8, 2013 - 2:24 pm

    One of the things I find silly is when an organization has rules that are not followed in general and then when something goes wrong they seek to blame the problem on the person not following the rules. That is a very poor way to manage. Thinking of a rule that isn’t followed as a rule is silly. The rule just serves as an easy way to scapegoat whoever is unlucky enough to have bad results.
    Standardized work isn’t about having a written standard it requires the processes are actually followed.
    Any time I hear the problem was some person not following a rule the next question I want to know the answer to is how that rule has been followed systemically.

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