Emergence of Rigidity

Quick Summary: New employees, without the benefit of past experiences, can quickly become rules based.


As an organization grows, newer employees rely on past practices to learn how to do their jobs.  In many instances, these practices become rigid rules in their minds.  When asked why, a commonly heard response is “we have always done it that way, don’t ask.”  The practice or the rule may still be applicable but in many cases, is not.  Rigidity can easily and incorrectly replace flexibility during high growth periods.

In the early days of a company, all employees and the entrepreneur or CEO are individual contributors.  This small group of individuals bond together with each person sharing a “whatever it takes” attitude.  Individuals feel empowered to make decisions as issues come up, or they quickly and with no hesitation approach the CEO for a decision.  The flat, empowered organization moves decisively.  With the intimate and constant interaction between all players, each individual seems to know what to do and what not to do, and when to request advice or consent.  Then the small group begins to grow.

As more people are added to the organization, some natural formalization begins to occur.  Not everyone can be involved in everything.  Structure begins to take place, and the business becomes more complex.  New employees, without the benefit of background and knowledge of past events, begin to follow the verbal procedures that have been used in the past.  Instead of well thought out and documented processes, activities are based on “rules” or approaches that have been taken in the past.  As new people are brought into the organization, the “older new” people begin to explain the “rules” relying on the justification of “that it just the way it is done.”  Quickly rules become rigid.  Each new person, trying to make a good impression and “get along,” begins to follow the rules and, in most cases, does not question them.

The once common “can do” attitude becomes “can’t do.”  People’s first reaction to anything new is “no.” They simply do not want to move into unchartered waters and risk running aground.

The end result is that the flexible and fast moving small company begins to create self-inflicted wounds.  Of course, this transition is not consciously pursued and often occurs asynchronously across the organization with certain groups adopting more rigidity than others.  More troubling is that many individuals mistake these issues as the implementation of formal processes instead of bureaucracy.

There is no question that structure and processes are vital in scaling any operation.  However, as discussed in the articles in Volume 6, Chapter 3, “Quality and Processes” in this collection, there is a correct time and method to implement processes.  Done correctly, they avoid the narrow minded rigid adherence trap that can naturally develop with growing pains.  The key is to empower people to say “yes” and avoid accepting the default answer of “no, we can’t.”

The best method to counteract the rigid rules culture is to inquisitively question why the rule is what it is.  The key to success with this approach is to sincerely ask the question and not confront others.  Ask for clarification and do not be timid about elevating the issue.  A simple method that can be used is to follow the “Five Whys” model developed by Sakichi Toyoda of the Toyota Motor Company.  Simply ask why and repeat it four more times.  In most cases, the origin of the process and its relevancy, or lack thereof, will become clear, and the rigidity will most likely morph to into flexibility.


Article Number : 4.010203   

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