October 30, 2016 JV

A Standard Response

Standards, standards, standards – Engineers have a love-hate relationship with them. Firstly, they provide the boundaries and essential guidance for decision-making that allows us to sleep at night. Then they bluntly remind us to “do it over” when the mark is missed. Standards are our last line of defence when manager Oliver twists thmay-i-have-some-moree project’s expectations to make them great, insisting “may I have some more?!?” What the Dickens? Like Gandalf’s staff thrust down onto the ground before Balrog, Standards proclaim “you shall not pass!”

From whence did Standards come? Were they forged by the Dark Lord Sauron in the caverns of Mordor to gain dominion over the free people of the earth? Perhaps they were neatly smuggled into business culture via a Dilbert Trojan Horse? No, their origins hold nothing so sinister or dangerous. We simply received our Standards by admitting that we don’t know everything there is to know. Standards are the Jiminy Crickets that convince us to swallow our pride and simply do what we are told because it will assure a good outcome for all.

I’d like to share a smirk-worthy anecdote I personally experienced while leading knowledge sharing activities within BHP Billiton’s Operating Excellence group. Community of Practice leaders representing various businesses across BHP Billiton all agreed that everyone should be doing things the same, best way. As CoP Leaders, they were stewards of the Community’s practices. The benefits of all businesses quickly employing the same best practices were self-evident. However, each person said that they would be happy to abide by the agreed best practice Standard so long that the Standard was based on their own best practices!

You have your way, I have mine. To each his own. A Standard response. Why should I do what you say? I think my way is better. A Standard response. I’m not hurting anyone by doing things my way. Who says that’s how we should act anyway? Who made you ruler and judge over us. A Standard response.

I recently watched the movie “Margin Call” which was about the beginning of the Global Financial Crisis. A Wall Street firm laid off their head of risk management. Then an analyst figured out that the firm’s portfolio of toxic debt may soon wipe them out. After a series of executive level meetings, the CEO decided that the firm should have a fire sale to get rid of their bad debt. The traders were faced with being fired and retaining their good name or doing what the CEO wanted, getting a hefty bonus and destroying their relationships and reputations. They followed through and the firm survived the crash. The trading floor left with their bonus and the head of trading was forced to live with his actions. The CEO enjoyed his dinner while making plans to get rich after the market hit bottom.

When I wrote that the movie was about the beginning of the Global Financial Crisis, it was actually the beginning of the end. The beginning of the GFC was when financial institutions tampered with, disabled or destroyed security standards and helped to create a sea of toxic debt. The end occurred when someone blinked and got out first, leaving others to hold the bag.

Standards are like a fence at the top of the cliff, preventing people from stepping over the edge. They are not there to arrest the fall. The ground does that task well enough.

Why are we told not to tamper with, disable, or destroy the smoke detector in the airplane lavatory? Why not just say “Don’t mess with it; you know it’s purpose?” It’s because modern-day people seem to be very adept at avoiding rules and consequences they don’t like by redefining language. A great example comes from former President Bill Clinton who stated “it depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is” while being interviewed about the Monica Lewinsky affair. A fish rots from the head down – an early saying (origin unknown).

Is this the last time there will be a GFC? If history is any indicator, no. While ever we reject the notion of an external standard and believe that we can continue to redefine our own, we will be picking up the pieces of broken systems, broken promises and broken lives.

There is a better way. Have a nice day, now!

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