If Procedures Contradict Values, They Fail

  • Service Organization Control

It’s almost embarrassing to write under this heading. You’d think it would be obvious, but experience says that it isn’t. Across corporate clients, I’ve seen policy and procedures contradict values, and work against basic humanity. And fail repeatedly.

I’ll just highlight a few examples that have hit me in the recent past.

Door Security and Tailgating

No matter how many memos Risk Managers send, and how grave the warnings from Security Managers, tailgating – following someone in who has already swiped their card – persists like the proverbial post-nuclear cockroach.  At least in all but serious terrorism-death-and-destruction offices.

And it is no surprise. Slamming the door in someone’s face goes against every value decent people acquire. But it is the essence of anti-tailgating policy. There is no way around the fact that such a policy requires you to be impolite. And it requires you to act according to a completely new ‘script’, acting against years of habit and ingrained neuropsych pathways. And it requires you to break rapport with people whose respect and affection you desire.

No corporate policy is going to beat that. It shouldn’t try.

Don’t ask people to be rude for the sake of security. If you really care about security, rather than some charade of “security theatre”, build doors that only allow one person in at a time. You know, like a turnstile. Otherwise, shut up and accept that people are people.

The Doctor’s Handshake and the Patient’s Power

Personal behaviour that undermines hospital hygiene has always been a problem. It remains one, despite much training, and research and procedures and policies and protocols.

Two elements deeply rooted in our humanness mean that approaches that rely on procedures and policy are doomed to fail.

The first is the infection-distribution mechanism that is the handshake. This is particularly so when the situation is between men, where tradition has tinged refusal to shake hands with giving great offence. Where women are involved, my read is that the handshake doesn’t have quite the same emotional impact.

So when the doctor walks into a hospital room and both doctor and patient feel the emotional need to shake hands (masculinity, politeness, concepts of reassurance and rapport – the cause matters not), infections protocols go out the door. Forget trying to change deeply ingrained behaviours driven by values and social acceptance – it ain’t gonna work.

And the same applies to a solution I thought of years ago – signs everywhere empowering patients to demand doctors and nurses wash their hands in front of them before touching anything, including drips, canulars and similar.

In the real world, where power differences are huge, patients are grateful for any care, and patients are desperate to stay on the good side of the person who cares for them under difficult conditions, do you see them breaking rapport and asserting loudly that their carer has to wash their hands? When the carer is hassled, in a hurry and perhaps a bit dismissive of the patient?

Emotional and social reality say no. So that was no solution either.

The only option is a process that removes the meaning of social choices and conversation that undermines hygiene. In this case, no solution except changing gloves in the hallway, and no entry to a room without gloves. But I guarantee that will fail too.

Sales, PR, Marketing and Process Excellence

Anyone who has worked in process improvement knows the Sales and Marketing teams are the toughest gig. Not at all process focused, very outcome-focused, no time for anything except that which delivers to target…which can be counterproductive and lead to worse outcomes in the long run, but is no-doubt a positive mindset for sales achievement.

I’ve seen too many corporate-wide process excellence projects try and force the Sales and Marketing square pegs into a  Finance-style process round hole. Foolish. Especially when the sales pitch for the project is the same to accountants as it is to salespeople.

Instead of fighting the subculture and its dominant personality styles, common sense suggests engaging with it. Which means the project objectives, structure and pitch have to differ. And that the expected outcomes have to differ. It may not seem right, or fair on other departments, or just systematically right. But it’s the only way.  And if you fight for the perfect system, you’ll have nothing.


Simply because something is written in a policy or procedure doesn’t endow it with magical powers. Recognise what values and humanity require of people, and find another way to your outcome. Or face up to failure.

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