Creating a Workplace With Flexibility

By Tom Terez

Dec. 1, 1999

You know all about TQM, as in Total Quality Management. But have you ever heard of Toenail Quality Management?

I encountered the new TQM during my research into meaningful workplaces. It was explained to me by a woman whose own workplace had gone completely mad with rules.

It seems that one day, several top managers from her company got together to discuss their staggering turnover rate. The owner was a stickler for formal business attire — to such a degree that the rules on workplace attire were like something out of a Marine Corps handbook. The managers figured this was prompting that sky-high turnover, and in short order, they had their solution: Every Friday would be “casual day.” Surely that would stop the exodus!

After getting the owner’s grudging go-ahead, a new rule on casual days was added to the already hefty policy manual. Then the personnel manager met with each work unit to explain how things would work.

That’s when the question came up: Can we wear sandals?

Yes, the personnel manager said to the employee.

Open-toe sandals?

The personnel manager paused, looked down at the freshly written policy, then made her declaration: You’re permitted to wear open-toe sandals, but only if the toenails are covered with nail polish.

Okay, not all organizations are pursuing Toenail Quality Management. Yet so many workplaces seem obsessed with creating rules and enforcing rules and ruling on rules. It’s bad enough for the employees, but it’s even worse when customers pay the price.

Another case in point: On December 23, Debbie and her colleagues were working feverishly to fill orders at an appliance superstore. Nearly all the products were sold on-site and either taken home by customers or delivered locally by truck. Then a rare phone order came in. Someone wanted to send a small stereo to an out-of-town relative. Debbie, who had been on the job for just a few weeks, would have to ship the item via express mail to ensures its arrival in time for Christmas.

She took the caller’s credit-card information, hung up the phone, did the necessary paperwork then discovered that there was only one person who arranged for overnight shipping. He happened to be off that day.

Fine, Debbie told her supervisor. Where are the shipping materials so I can do it myself? We have to send it today, or it’ll arrive after Christmas.

Sorry, the supervisor said, but we have a rule around here that sales people don’t do any of the packing and shipping. You’ll have to wait for him to come in after the holiday.

Completely frustrated with the inflexibility of it all, Debbie called back the customer and gushed with apologies. And before hanging up, she recommended a competing appliance store down the street.

In many more interviews with people from all walks of work life, I heard stories like these. And I started to ask myself some questions.

Do all these rules help employees? Do they help customers? If not, why do we keep them?
Why do we want to populate the workplace with people who “play by the rules”? Our goal is to be mission-focused, right? Shouldn’t we expect people to “play by the mission”?
Wouldn’t it even make sense for employees to break a rule or even abolish a rule every now and then if it freed up their potential and meant better service to the customer?

In a meaningful workplace, it’s all about flexibility. Mission and people come first, and the rules are there only to the degree that they help. They’re few in number, and they bend easily. This has nothing to do with having a “loose” environment where people eagerly abuse the “lack” of rules. It has everything to do with creating a workplace built on trust, support, and freedom.

So how do you go about creating a workplace that’s mission-driven instead of rule-driven? Here are some ideas:

  • Don’t be “mission-driven” in word alone. Take the time to develop a unifying purpose, a shared vision, and a common set of down-to-earth goals. Widely involve employees in the process so all this good stuff is deeply held in their hearts and minds. Make it an ongoing effort so the mission remains relevant, prominent, and up to date.

  • Be on the alert for situations in which organizational rules, policies, and procedures are put to the test. These are opportunities to conduct a snap “flexibility test.” Does it seem like the rules have become more important than people? If so, address the immediate situation in a flexible way and recommend changes to the policies so flexibility is easier to achieve in the future.

  • Organize a dialogue on this topic of organizational flexibility, focusing on rules and policies that seem to be causing the most heartburn. Apply the mission test: Do the rules contribute to the greater mission of the organization, or are they actually making it more difficult for people to carry out the mission? This is guaranteed to be a robust conversation. Be ready to act on the answers.

  • Avoid the “rule creation reflex,” which can afflict well-intentioned managers who face difficult situations. Example: An employee is found using work time to browse “adult” Web sites. Unfortunate Response #1: Browsers are removed from the computers of virtually all employees. Unfortunate Response #2: Employees who are allowed to keep their browsers are issued a list of permissible Web sites, along with the requirement that Internet research should be kept to a maximum of 30 minutes per day. Result #1: The company seals off a massive pipeline of information, much of which can serve the business. Result #2: Employees complain about yet another rule and begin finding ways to sneak their Web searches.

Other columns by Tom Terez:

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