Rules of the road

Post date: April 18, 2019 by Grace Bourke

Recently, caught in a winter snowstorm, I had to drive extremely slowly down the middle of the road in the tracks made by previous cars. I realized that driving rules were significantly suspended in this situation. This reminded me of when a sensei told me about the concept of “rules of the road.”

Every company has “rules of the road.” They are the unwritten values, norms, and social pressure of a group. Think of them as the part of the iceberg we don’t see of social standards. For example, a new employee is told in orientation that it’s okay to speak-up in a meeting, but everyone knows that the only opinion that counts is that of the most senior person in the room.

Why do these social conventions matter? I once worked in an environment where even when we had low fidelity to standard work, our documentation showed flawless adherence. The numbers looked good, but our customers noticed the decrease in quality. When I spoke up, the social retribution made it clear that it was best to keep quiet or move on.

During a lean transformation, the rules of the road change. Before, the norm may have been to keep quiet; now engagement of each person is expected. Before, only the leader brought up new ideas; now everyone is challenged to identify improvements. When the rules of the road change, it can be as unsettling as skidding a car on ice.

For me, a fundamental component of improvement work is W. Edwards Deming’s 8th point: “Drive out fear so that everyone may work effectively for the company.”[i] This is especially true during a transformation with shifting social and cultural norms. We need to go beyond Deming’s advice of go see, train, remove barriers that rob workers of “pride in workmanship,” (his 12thpoint) and get everyone involved. I would add that we need to support people through the evolving culture through communication, modeling the behavior, repetition, clarification, and recognition—persisting in these with humble appreciation.




[i]Deming, W. E. (1986). Out of the crisis. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.