Autonomy or compliance? Navigating the balance

How do you enable people to take the initiative to make needed creative decisions in their work with the equally important discipline needed to follow standard procedures?

The answer isn’t obvious. Case in point: a few years ago over lunch in the Shell Oil cafeteria in London, a long time employee and I were comparing Shell and Exxon. “At Exxon they have standard procedures for everything. As a manager, you’re supposed to follow the standards, and if something doesn’t work, you change the standards. At Shell we have standards, but they only go so far. We have far more discretion to do the right thing for customers. I’d rather own Exxon stock than Shell stock, but I could never work there.”

On the one hand, processes trump people in terms of getting work done right. W. Edwards Deming, the father of quality, said “A bad process will beat a good person every time,” and Fujio Cho, a former president of Toyota, famously said, “We get brilliant results from average people managing brilliant processes, while our competitors get average or worse results from brilliant people managing broken processes.” At McDonald’s they send their workers to Hamburger U to learn how to flip hamburgers in the most efficient and effective way. They want consistency, reliability and low cost in their customer service. There’s a prescribed way to cook their hamburgers and they don’t want their employees to improvise. Standard procedures which rely on the scientific method are essential to creating a controlled and stable basis for continuous process improvement.

On the other hand, the right person armed with the right means can use individual initiative to break the rules of standard procedures for the right reasons creating better results. There are dangers in relying solely on scientifically-driven solutions when dealing with people. For example, there is the famous story of a Nordstrom worker taking back a product from a customer that Nordstrom had never sold. Given the authority, front line workers can use their individual discretion to break standard rules and do the right thing for their customers.

The balance between autonomy and compliance is shifting perhaps most radically and visibly in healthcare. Whatever the balance has been, it is moving now toward more standardization, driven in large part by the need for more collaboration. From software that tracks patients’ medical records to standard protocols for choosing medications, physicians will experience lower levels of individual autonomy in how they do their work.

There are a few stories where the tradeoff between standard procedures and individual discretion has been finessed — where both together have made a better solution than either on its own. For example, Starbucks has many standards to govern its thousands of stores, yet it tries to give workers a sense of decision-making authority, asking them where espresso machines, cash registers, and merchandise should be located, and to decide how customers should be greeted. Pharmaceutical companies must conform to strict standard procedures to replicate consistently high quality drug development results and satisfy FDA regulatory requirements at every stage. Yet there are instances where project leaders have taken a “stand” to dramatically accelerate a timeline, unleashing creativity and unprecedented results while adhering to protocols of good science.

The question lurking behind these examples: is this distinction of individual discretion versus standard procedures helpful in seeing choices and trade-offs more clearly in the way work is executed, or does this “either/or” thinking obscure reality? Management consultant and friend Dave Laveman, who specializes in unexamined assumptions that drive performance, has this to say:

“Business is full of either/or scenarios, and in too many cases they present a false choice. A willingness to suspend traditional assumptions about what things go together or stay apart enables new ways of ‘seeing’ old issues. The temptation for leaders, who are driven to appear decisive, is to choose one way or the other prematurely. This may lead to temporary success at a hidden cost. The leader who can sustain the discomfort of holding together what appear to be mutually exclusive alternatives will likely access deeper levels of creativity (in self and team). Previously unseen solutions come to light surprisingly often when approached in this way.”

Question: Do you see new ways of looking at traditional “either/or” tradeoffs between individual discretion and standard procedures that can lead to more robust solutions?



Categories: Process Management

Author:Brad Power

Brad is a consultant and researcher in process innovation. His current research is on sustaining attention to process management. He is currently conducting research with the Lean Enterprise Institute.

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2 Comments on “Autonomy or compliance? Navigating the balance”

  1. August 29, 2012 at 10:50 am #


    Excellent blog. Either/or scenarios are often a false choice. The reason that excellent procedures work with average employees to deliver excellent results is because the process was designed to fit the business need. However, too often the business need shifts and the process doesn’t. Or worse, the shift is in a segment or market of your business and not across all business.

    I think if you add AND to Either/Or you gain the flexibility to innovate changes in process that still adhere to good corporate standards. Then the excellent employee that can see the disconnect can innovate a new process that is excellent itself so that the results it achieves can be excellent with other average employees. Not every person is going to be inclined to offer up ideas for improvement and not every idea for improvement will be excellent. But having the agility to change directions, even in small corners of your business, can have a huge impact on the entire business.

  2. September 6, 2012 at 8:28 pm #

    Your comment that “too often the business need shifts and the process doesn’t” reminded me of habits. Organizations develop not only process standards, but similarly accepted behaviors, “the way we do things around here” that also can become out of sync with a market shift.

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