IS Survival Guide: Words for the Wise

TRANSLATION: I can't support this with any logic, and I sure don't want you to question it.

MANAGEMENT SPEAK: We must do it this way.

-- IS Survivalist William Adams' translation, on the other hand, is unquestionable.

MY DAUGHTER, ERIN, just caught her first fish. Regular readers may recall that her dad spent years studying fish. Mine emitted electric impulses and lived in Africa. To catch them, we dammed small streams, then shoveled the water through nets.

Erin caught hers with a salmon egg on a hook. It's an entirely different experience. After we unhooked the fish and returned it to the lake, I felt like we owed it an apology.

I might owe Managing in Manhattan an apology, too.

If you'll recall, Manhattan wanted sample policies to use as a starting point. In response, I suggested he avoid creating policies whenever possible.

In retrospect, I'm not sure if Manhattan wanted policies or procedures. Despite their linkage in the phrase "policies and procedures," they are entirely different concepts.

What is the difference? The short version: Procedures are good; policies are bad.

The longer version: Policies define what behavior is and isn't allowed. They exist to replace the good judgment of individuals with the better judgment of the institution. Static documents, they are immune to context and nuance. As a result, they are useful only in circumstances where context and nuance are not important. Reserve them for black-and-white situations.

For everything else, communicate principles. Doing so allows employees to be adults and managers to use discretion. Sure, you'll have difficulties in the gray areas, but that's the nature of grayness.

Policies replace good judgment with inflexible edicts. Procedures, on the other hand, replace improvisation with step-by-step instructions. There are plenty of situations where step-by-step instructions are helpful.

Consider the lowly tape backup. When you first install a new tape backup system, you need to do some configuring and testing to make sure all data is recoverable. If you aren't using an automated system, you also must be able to locate and identify tapes.

If your operators follow your written procedure (not always a safe assumption), you ensure the utility of your backup system. If they don't, it doesn't matter how much you spent on the technology, it's worthless.

Procedure is just another word for process. Well-defined, tested processes are important tools that help employees succeed. Here are a few more tips.

1. Write procedures only for recurring situations or for emergencies you can anticipate. For one-time occurrences or exceptions, have this written procedure: "Use your best judgment and improvise."

2. Keep them simple. State the purpose, scope, and proper channels for authorization so each procedure is applied only in the right circumstances and by the right people.

3. Don't confuse procedures with tutorials: A procedure is not an instruction manual. If you need an instruction manual, you also need employee training. Provide it.

4. Test, adjust, test, adjust, and test again. Process designs are never right the first time.

5. Make sure you can find the right procedure. Use your intranet. Burn some CD-ROMs. Keep a hard copy, too.

Finally, retire or revamp irrelevant or obsolete procedures because if we don't periodically reinvent the wheel, we'll all look like Fred Flintstone, driving cars that roll on logs.

Send Bob e-mail at Bob Lewis is a Minneapolis-based consultant with Perot Systems Corp.

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