by Bob Lewis

Trafficking in Policies and Standards

Nov 01, 2010
IT Leadership

When are policies and standards necessary? You can learn a lot from how we drive.

When are policies and standards necessary? You can learn a lot from how we drive.

ManagementSpeak: I do so much during the day, you guys have no idea.

Translation: I sit in my cubicle all day and watch old reruns of Star Trek: Next Generation on Hulu.

Thanks for this translation go to L.T., who is happy to watch his re-runs on his own time.

I was standing on the National Mall the other day with a quarter million or so of my close personal friends, wondering, as I’m sure most of the crowd was, “How am I going to justify calling this a business expense on my taxes?”

Then Jon Stewart used drivers merging down to one lane as they enter the Lincoln Tunnel as a metaphor for how we all manage to make things work and it hit me: Link a column to the event and I’m good to go. And what could be a better way to do it than to use cars as a metaphor for … something.

And what could be a better something than corporate policies and standards?


Here’s the premise: Policies and standards are the corporate equivalent of laws and regulations. In many areas, like minimum capital ratios, the question of regulation has become angry and polarized (and think about that for a moment!)

In corporations, the parallel is that policies and standards make employees grumpy while turning HR into bureaucrats. One of the challenges for IT is deciding when they’re needed in spite of the grumpiness and bureaucracy they cause.

If we hit the subject head on we’ll be in danger of banging into existing biases on the subject. But when it comes to driving, the need for some basics is uncontroversial.

So we’ll build on that, using driving to extract some basic principles we can apply more broadly. Here goes:

Case #1 — Merging: It’s Jon Stewart’s example. Basic courtesy and competence are enough. There’s no need for anything more.

Case #2 — Speed: Imagine a wide open highway, with no other cars within miles. There’s no compelling case for any speed limits at all. If you drive too fast the only person you’ll hurt will be yourself and your passengers, who presumably are voluntary participants.

Now imagine rush hour. There’s no need for any speed limits in this situation either, because no matter how hard you might try, you aren’t going to go any faster than traffic allows.

It’s in the in-between situations, when driving too fast is both possible and a danger to others that speed limits matter. Even then, they should be as high as is safe.

Case #3 — Flow: Imagine an intersection. It’s in a relatively unpopulated part of town and very few cars drive through it. There’s no need for a stop sign or traffic light — drivers can figure it out on their own.

Add more traffic, and maybe pedestrians as well, and stop signs are probably a good idea. Without them the best case outcome is gridlock. The worst case is grim.

Add yet more traffic. Stop signs will prevent damage, but flow will be a mess. Put in traffic lights instead … a much more expensive infrastructure to install and maintain … and more cars will get where they’re going faster (in process terms, you’ll improve both cycle time and throughput without reducing quality, which is to say without increasing the number of traffic accidents).

Case #4 — Skills: If the only consequences of not knowing how to drive were personal, it would be just fine for anyone to climb into a car and do whatever they did. There might be a few places left in the U.S. where this would be harmless. Everywhere else, bad drivers … those who don’t know how to operate their vehicles and don’t understand how to behave at, for example, stop signs and stop lights … endanger everyone around them.

And so we require drivers to pass a test of basic competence before they’re allowed on the road.

What are the underlying principles?

1. If you don’t need a policy or standard, don’t have a policy or standard. They’ll just get in the way. Only create and enforce policies and standards when complete freedom of action is likely to cause problems for the business.

2. In simple, low-volume situations, employees can figure things out for themselves. In intermediate situations they need simple, straightforward policies. Complex, high-volume situations are what call for complex and expensive control systems because the alternative is that the system either experiences catastrophic failure or simply grinds to a halt.

3. When incompetence can cause serious harm, require competence and test for it.

If you decide to apply these same principles to your thinking about, say, government regulation, that’s your privilege. This column isn’t about that, though — I’m limiting its scope to commentary on business policies and standards.

The IRS insists.

Bob Lewis is author of Keep the Joint Running: A Manifesto for 21st Century Information Technology, Bare Bones Change Management: What you shouldn’t not do, and six other books on business, information technology, and where they intersect. He is president of IT Catalysts, Inc., a consultancy specializing in these subjects.