cart1.jpgMost rules are made with good intentions and are designed to solve a real problem. Unfortunately, the people making the rules often do not understand the full impact of them, how they play out in the real world.

Unforeseen consequences can undermine the effectiveness of the rule. This is exacerbated by the tendency of the consequences to play out distant in time and place from the person making the rule, and feedback is minimal to non-existent.

I’m sure many businesses have been experiencing an upsurge in bad checks in these trying economic times, and the natural reaction is to tighten the rules. Case in point:

Real-Life Vignette

Setting: Winn-Dixie checkout line

Cast of Characters: Cashier, Little Old Lady, Long Line of Customers

Cashier: “I need to see a drivers license in order to accept your check.”

Little Old Lady: “But you never have before.”

Cashier: “New rule.”

Little Old Lady: “But I don’t have my drivers license.”

Cashier: “Then I can’t take the check.”

Little Old Lady: “I think it is in my car. Can I go get it?”

Cashier: “Okay.”

Long Line of Customers “Ahhhh! OMG! Slow simmer! Maybe they will open up another line….”

Eventually the Little Old Lady (described as at least 70, sweet, everyone’s granny) tottered back in with the unhappy news that her drivers license was not in her car. At this point the cashier capitulated and called over the manager, telling him the Little Old Lady shops there often. The manager in turn okayed the check and our Little Old Lady went on her way, groceries in hand, and our Long Line of Customers finally got checked out.

How could this have been avoided? Obviously, there is a need for some rules in life, but how to make intelligent ones? When rule makers make the effort to become aware and remain aware of how their rules play out in the real world, they can become better rule makers.

Three keys to good rule making and implementation:

— Advance Notice: The more effort you make to inform the affected parties, the smoother the implementation. Were signs prominently placed in advance telling customers of the new rule? Did cashiers tell every check payer for, say, 2 weeks in advance that “next time” a drivers license would be required?

— Soft Implementation: During the first 2 weeks, were cashiers authorized to waive a reasonable number of non-compliers? Especially if the cashier knew the customer?

— Empowerment: Are senior/experienced/trained front-line personnel given a certain amount of PERMANENT authority to waive the requirement in special or limited cases? Such as 1 per day, 5% of time, as they felt it appropriate. For example, a known customer who forgot her license?

We live in a world where systems, rules, regulations, policies, and procedures interact in myriad, often unanticipated, ways. A good rule maker makes an ongoing effort to get out into the real world, the front line, the factory floor, the storefront, the checkout line, to talk to those most affected and solicit their feedback. Even a good rule can become obsolete.


*The title is from Henry David Thoreau. The complete quotation is: “Any fool can make a rule, and any fool will mind it.”