The AntlerBoy’s Version of Standards

I challenged this weeks, Business901 podcast guest, Benjamin Taylor of RedQuadrant, to a discussion about standards.

Joe: I’ve always professed that standards are what creates the wow in an organization. Because someone knows exactly how far they can go, their limitations, limitations of the company. They know when to step out of the box and when to stay in the box and without that definition and I think of standards in a pretty broad term, not like a script or something – I relate that somewhat to the military. In the military, the guy knows what he can and cannot do, what his capabilities are. I think that’s an important part in services is to really understand and understand your core capabilities and what you can and can’t do, and that helps the customer experience.

Benjamin Taylor:  Absolutely. Standards is a word that’s like leadership, like management, like Lean – there’s probably more of them that’s abused and unused for different ends if anything else. The risk of being complicated let me try and take that in four parts. I think the first thing that you were talking about, part one and part two of standards for me is capabilities and discretion, and it’s easy to get those mixed up, right? Capabilities, what are you actually capable of doing as a business unit, as a team, or as an individual at the front-line? To go on the battlefield, not that I know anything about applying any of this in the military needs to know what he is and isn’t capable of doing. There’s no point in doing something outside of his intellectual, physical or logistical capability.

But the second is discretion. He needs to know, and this is so important in all of our organizations what’s going to get him into trouble and what’s going to get him lauded, right? And there needs to be a quite sophisticated understanding of that in order for people to be able to go above beyond when it’s appropriate. People dumb this down so much but work is about exercising your own freedom and your own freedom of will and discretion within certain limited, so you really need to know what your limits are. And I think one of the really sad things about the way that management has gone in the 21st century is that some of these good old-fashioned things like letting people know what the limits to their discretion and making that really clear have kind of gone away.

There’re another couple of ways of looking at standards which are basically two interpretations. One is that the standard is the repeatable way that we always do something which gives us an object to work on, clarity and a process that everybody is following. But the other is that the standard is the thing that we’re aspiring to, that we constantly try to improve and work on. So people who want to use the word standards as a bogeyman, as a paper tiger to attack and push their own approach will say, when people talk about standards, they’re talking about shackling everybody to the other thing the same way, and you and I know that’s rubbish. But standards ought to be about the known best way of doing things and building the capability of everybody to do things in the known best way so far and giving them the discussion to improve it and then picking up and learning from that improvement.

Again, there are tweaks. Maybe in an Agile world, in a more complex world, in a more wicked, messy problems world, we’re not looking for everybody to necessarily do things the same best way in every part of the organization, if that makes sense. Maybe there is more discretion now for people to do things the best way for them at that time but they still need to know what everybody else is doing, how it can be improved, what the limited to their discretion are and what they are capable of doing so that they don’t screw up. Because the worst thing that can happen in an organization is that you create a situation where you give people enough rope to hang themselves, and I see that happening time and time and time again. People are encouraged to exercise discretion and then as soon as they do, and there’s a whiff of something going wrong – controversy, failure, upset customer, they get slammed right back into their box and that’s exactly what we’re trying to discourage because that’s death to innovation, it’s death to people putting in their discretionary efforts, and it’s really death to a culture of continuing improvement.

About Benjamin Taylor: Benjamin is a founder and managing partner at RedQuadrant. He studied philosophy, politics, and economics at Oxford University before becoming co-ordinator of a youth development charity. He is passionate about systems thinking, customer-led transformation, lean, and generally thinking about better ways to run and lead organisations. He holds a lean six sigma black belt and is accredited to run the power+systems organisation workshop and ‘when cultures meet’ workshop. Benjamin is a visiting lecturer in applied systems thinking at Cass Business School, City Univerity, and has lectured at Nottingham Business School and Oxford Said/HEC Paris. You can find Ben on Twitter as @antlerboy.

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