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It’s the principle, dammit!



This article was published in Finweek Magazine on 26-July-2012

Why don’t companies train principles rather than procedures? Why don’t they empower employees to use whatever sensible means necessary to achieve the ultimate aim, rather than force them to follow one rigid course of action?

A few weeks ago, while training at the gym, I spotted a hefty wallet lying on the ground next to the rowing machines. Inside the wallet was a wad of bills, a few credit cards and, luckily, a driver’s licence. A picture and a name should be more than enough to track down the owner. And he had a complicated Eastern European name, so no chance of mistaken identity here.

I went to the front desk to inform the reception staff about my find. “Here we go”, I said, as I handed the wallet over. “Luckily, we’ve got his details. So just announce it over the PA system, and he can come collect it.”

“No, we can’t do that, sir” was the immediate reply, as the receptionist placed the wallet carefully under the counter.

“Why not?”

“That’s not procedure. We have to place all lost items in the lost property cupboard and then people can come claim their missing item.”

“Seriously? You’re going to put a wallet full of cash into the lost property cupboard?” I asked incredulously.

“Yes, sir”, she responded, a faint smirk appearing on her face. “That’s procedure.”

“But why do that?” I retorted. “Why not just call the guy on the PA? He’ll come over and collect it, problem sorted!”

“I can’t do that, it’s not procedure”.

I felt my blood pressure rising. Instead of continuing the pointless questioning, I marched over to the counter and grabbed the wallet. “Fine”, I snapped, “I’ll find him myself”. Which was actually surprisingly easy to do. A quick scan of the gym revealed the likely suspect pounding away on the treadmill. I went up to him, asked his name to confirm his identity, and handed him his wallet. Job done, and hopefully I’ve earned a few points in the karma bank in the sky.

The receptionist had been watching me, and she quickly looked away as I caught her eye. “Not tonight”, I thought, “you’ll have to earn your money the old-fashioned way”.

Hiding behind procedures

I’d like to give the gym receptionist the benefit of the doubt. I’d like to think that she was really honest, and that she had never intended to relieve the wallet of its contents before putting it in the lost property cupboard. I’d like to think that she was simply following procedure, as she had been trained.

But this raises another problem. Surely the ultimate aim of a lost property cupboard is to safeguard lost valuables temporarily in anticipation of returning them to their rightful owners? If there is another course of action that achieves this aim much quicker and more effectively, then surely this alternative course of action should be followed? Why default to the accepted procedure when it is clearly sub-optimal?

In fact, this is a problem at many companies. Procedures are put in place to achieve a certain aim. Employees are trained to carry out the procedure, and they are measured accordingly. The problem is that they are usually not trained to understand why the procedure was put in place in the first place. Over the course of time, this original objective fades into the background. Or worse, it loses its relevance completely. And then the staff automatically respond “sorry, sir, that’s procedure” without ever stopping to think about what they’re doing or what they’re ultimately trying to achieve.

Principles, not practices

Why don’t companies train principles rather than procedures? Why don’t they empower employees to use whatever sensible means necessary to achieve the ultimate aim, rather than force them to follow one rigid course of action?

The result would be much happier employees, and much happier customers.

One counter-argument is that such empowered employees may not use sound judgement in applying their own solutions. If this is a real concern, then the company is hiring the wrong people in the first place. Common sense should be a hiring prerequisite for any job. And companies can always publish suggested procedures and guidelines to shape the decisions made by their employees.

In the meanwhile, don’t lose your valuables in the gym. You won’t get them back.

This is a guest post by Dr. Gavin Symanowitz, the founder of FeedbackRocket.com, an award-winning online innovation that enables anonymous management feedback.

Author: Colette Symanowitz

Director of FraudCracker. Passionate about entrepreneurship, personal branding and networking. I also tweet under @FraudCracker

7 thoughts on “It’s the principle, dammit!

  1. I totally agree! By people always mentioning about “procedures” makes them act like machines in the sense that they can’t reason or think outside the box!

  2. “The Computer says No!” There was a recent TED presentation about ‘Complicatedness”, by Yves Morieaux which exactly sums up the frustration we have with big corporations.

  3. P.S. Your name is just as difficult!

    • Thanks Mike, agreed. I went from Ross to Symanowitz when I got married, and it took a lot of adjusting to the new surname. On the plus side, having a rare surname like this one is great from a personal branding perspective, because there is no-one else with the same combination of first name and surname (-:).

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