Don't choose procedures over people

Procedures have their place in a technical environment. But when it comes to managing people, principles often work better. In his column this week, Tim Landgrave shares three simple, yet effective, management principles.

As technologists, our natural inclination when faced with a problem is to flowchart it, put a procedure in place, and then monitor compliance to make sure the problem doesn’t happen again. Unfortunately, over time we build up so many layers of procedures, rules, and “case law” to handle situations that our people almost lose the ability for independent thought.

Our most creative employees become shackled by the rules, and the least-valued ones use the rules to cover their collective derrières. In consulting with companies who grapple with decisions regarding the implementation of new technology, I’ve discovered a corresponding inability to deal with change based on the institutionalization of years of rules and procedures.

These companies have experienced an interesting phenomenon when setting aside their “operations bible” and implementing instead a system of guiding principles. The CIO of one of these firms likened it to taking up the carpet in an old home, sanding off the dirt and grime from the wood floor underneath, and then standing back and appreciating the beautiful hardwood finish that had been covered over by years of neglect.

In the discussions on principle versus procedure, three simple principles keep popping up. Let’s look at each in detail.

Principle #1: Fix the problem, not the blame
Companies waste hundreds of hours each year attempting to figure out “who did it” instead of trying to figure out “what went wrong.” I’m constantly surprised even in my company—where I preach the “fix the problem” mentality—by the instinct of managers to start problem resolution by asking each individual to detail what they did instead of their impression of what happened, why it happened, and how to prevent it from happening in the future. Sometimes in our haste to prevent bad things from happening, we just forget that people make mistakes and must have a chance to learn from them.

In a prior company I owned, an overzealous employee asked to be given the responsibility for configuring ISDN connections between a company’s geographically dispersed offices. The ISDN routers were supposed to have been configured only to make a connection when there was traffic to transfer.

Unfortunately, the employee also configured NetBIOS on the routers, forcing all the routers to “ping” each other every 30 seconds. Luckily, the long distance company called us the Monday after our weekend install to inform us that all four locations had been making 6-second long distance phone calls (the most expensive kind) for the entire weekend—for a total bill of $7,500.

The employee informed me of the problem then went to his desk, packed up his belongings, and came into my office expecting me to accept his resignation before “I fired him.” I asked him if he knew how to fix the problem, and he responded that he had already fixed the problem and documented it for future engineers. I then explained to him that I didn’t want a future employer to get the benefit of the education I had paid for (about $7,500 worth), so he should go put his things back and get to work.

As word spread about the company’s attitude about fixing problems instead of fixing blame, an amazing thing happened—people were much more willing to assume responsibility and initiative. They knew they were allowed to fail and to learn from their mistakes.

Principle #2: Praise in public, criticize in private
It’s very important to give employees specific feedback about their successes and failures. But in most cases you do more harm than good by exposing your employees to criticism in a public forum.

Praise, on the other hand, is only valuable in public. If you choose only to praise your people in private, they won’t believe that you believe what you’re telling them. Otherwise, why wouldn’t you want everyone to know about those achievements?

You should also note that I chose my words carefully when imploring you to limit your criticism in a “public forum.” In most companies, the new “public forum” is not the company meeting but the e-mail message.

I recently worked with a senior manager who chose to fire off caustic e-mails to people after choosing “Reply All” on e-mail messages. What the manager didn’t realize is that her tone and demeanor in the e-mail messages didn’t communicate her point about the problem. She was simply dismissed as a “flamer” in e-mail.

Other managers took my advice of sending two messages—a private message suggesting ways an individual could improve his or her methods or outcomes and, if warranted, a separate “Reply All” message praising the individual for their effort, concern for the company, attention to detail, or some other positive element of their behavior. These managers are almost universally praised for their personnel management skills. The end result: People will want to please you if you follow this principle.

Principle #3: Make rules for the 98 percent of people who do the right thing, not the 2 percent who do the wrong thing
Whether I’m working with companies to design their public Web sites or their private human resource systems, I’m constantly amazed at their interest in preventing fraud at the expense of serving customers or employees.

You can determine whether a company will be successful over the long term by placing a simple call to their customer service department and attempting to return a product. If the company makes you jump through hoops to return a product you’re dissatisfied with, you can be sure that it won’t be around for long. The company’s desire to keep “bad customers” from defrauding it also keeps “good customers” from wanting to do business with it.

All the company really needs to know is whether it could have done something differently that would have prevented the return. For example, did the company explain how the product works in order to ensure that it met the user’s anticipated need? I don’t mind giving a company good, solid information about how to minimize returns and to get additional sales opportunities, as long as there’s no doubt in my mind that the company’s going to take back a product I’m not satisfied with.

Bottom line: Customers will do more business with you if you make it easy to do so by focusing on serving the majority of customers who want to do business with you instead of focusing on creating systems to penalize the minority who will find a way to take advantage of you regardless of what systems you put in place.

Living on principle
We all recognize the necessity for procedures and process in areas of the business that have specific metrics attached to financial performance or technical requirements. I’m not suggesting that we can’t survive with structure. On the contrary, I believe by freeing people up to make intelligent decisions based on principle, they will appreciate and abide by the procedures that remain because they will recognize them as necessary and not arbitrary.
What principles would you add to Tim Landgrave’s list? Send them to us in an e-mail or start a discussion below.

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