Four Steps to Effective Rule Enforcement

By Kevin McManus, Chief Excellence Officer, Great Systems

One of the key reasons people make mistakes is that they don’t follow the rules. There are multiple reasons to explain why people break the rules, but we all too often fail to effectively address them to improve rule compliance, let alone commitment. Instead, we rely on punishment, reminders, and reprimands – weak fixes that aren’t sustainable. How effective are your rule enforcement steps?

Whenever I teach a TapRooT® root cause analysis course, I get the chance to see an effective four-step enforcement process in action. To enhance learning, we take breaks every hour. With each break comes the opportunity for people to break the rules. What percent of the class will come back from the ten-minute break on time?

The four-step enforcement process that we use to achieve near 100% compliance to the ten-minute break rule is not that complicated, It is different however than the rule enforcement approaches most organizations use. Because rule following is a key aspect of high performance work, I thought I would take the time to share this process with you.

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Clearly Define and Communicate the Rules for Effective Rule Enforcement

Clarity and repetition are two keys to effective rule communication.  All too often we write the rules in a very general nature and state the rules only one time. We rely on others to communicate our policies for us, and we fail to ensure the right emotional emphasis – positive or negative – is attached to such communications.

Rules are often written in a ‘one size fits all’ style to allow flexibility, without realizing that such generality can also invite higher levels of non-compliance. Very different behaviors occur when we emphasize being ‘back in the room and in your seat’ versus simply asking people to ‘be back in the room’ before the break time has expired.

We also often fail to appreciate the fact that people have different communication preferences. Some people understand and retain written communiques much better than others. Verbal, face-to-face communications often work the best, but we often don’t want to take the extra time needed to share information this way.

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Provide Consistent Rule Compliance Feedback

In class, we use a big clock, projected on the screen at the front of the room, to clearly let people know how much break time is left. We don’t expect them to track their own time as the only feedback source. Similarly, speed limit signs that are paired with a current speed indicator do a better job of keeping excessive speeds down.

How do you provide your people with ‘real time’ rule compliance performance? How often do they only follow the rules when they know someone is watching? I learned years ago that the adage ‘No feedback, no motivation’ really matters. Such feedback does not have to be negative or punitive, but it does need to be provided. That is where the importance of consequences come in.

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Define and Enforce Consequences

Enforcement is viewed all too often as only as a negative thing. If people know they will get in trouble if they get caught breaking the rules, what becomes the goal – following the rules or not getting caught? With the proper emphasis and reasoning, we can easily shift one’s focus towards gaining the positive consequences of rule compliance. When people are recognized for doing the right things, personal pride, and over time commitment, is created.

Leaders need to stress the positive, as well as negative, outcomes for following the rules. Positive consequences don’t have to always be extrinsic in nature. Enhanced job security, a safer working environment, happier customers, and less wasted time can all be gained from following the rules. I have found that the best enforcement strategy is to provide positive, meaningful, daily, and consistent feedback.

In our TapRooT® root cause analysis class example, the consequences are simple. We give out a playing card for being back in the seat on time, with the chance to play best and worst hand poker for a prize. If someone returns from break late, they don’t get a card. This rarely happens however, even though the prizes are relatively low in cost. People want the recognition for doing the right thing.

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Measure and Improve the Rule Enforcement Process

Rule enforcement is a key management activity that we often fail to measure. Even in those cases where we do audit compliance to the rules, we often fail to trend such performance over time. Worse yet, we fail to improve our enforcement practices, outside of punishing more people when rules are broken.

In our ‘back from break’ example, we can easily see how well we are achieving 100% compliance. In the workplace however, this is much harder to see if an external group only spot checks the team or process. Process owners need to monitor and work with their own people in a cooperative manner to emphasize the importance of following the rules.

Most importantly, we have to change our work systems to remove barriers to good workmanship. W. Edwards Deming convinced me that most people want to do a good job. When we make it hard for people to follow the rules, rule compliance and commitment percentages drop dramatically. The same result occurs when we fail to define the true positive outcomes that come with consistently following the rules.

How effective are your rule enforcement steps? Would a systems change or two give you better results?

Keep improving!

Kevin McManus, Chief Excellence Officer, Great Systems

Great Systems  

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