When Decision Making Rules Are Wrong

I had read an article a while back titled ‘Detroit forcing business to remove large “billboards” from their buildings.’ The two things I found troubling with this situation portrayed in the article were 1) the companies with these advertisements are bringing in a lot of money to the businesses, which is good for the city, but also 2) the decision to remove the signs is based on an outdated law. The article stated, “The current restrictions for building signs date to the late 1990s. Back then, city officials criticized the proliferation of signs and billboards showing cigarettes, alcohol, scantily clad women and the soon-to-open casinos.” So instead of fixing the rule (i.e. clarifying what kinds of building sings are allowed), the city is making everyone take down their signs. Even though the article said the city will consider allowing them in the future after the law is reconsidered, the amount of time and money spent to take down the signs, enforce the law (which hand’t been enforced previously), and then to hang the signs back up is unnecessary and frivolous. This is a prime example of solving the wrong problem and allowing incorrect rules to dictate bad decisions.

Related: Self Reflection and Correctly Defining Problems

This situation extends far beyond government or municipalities and generally represents many other kinds of business decisions which are common in organizations. Many businesses or employees can make bad decisions when they make their choices because it is “the rule” or because of some incorrectly perceived or applied rule. Sometimes the better decision could have been made if the decision maker would have questioned if the rule was even the correct one to begin with.

Related: Innovation’s Enemy: The Words, “We Can’t”

In the book Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives, Tim Harford talks about how technology is actually making this concept worse because we inherently trust the “rules” the technology runs on. Working in information technology for many years, it became very apparent to me that people assume the rules and logic behind computers are correct and therefore make bad decisions because of them.

Related: Before You Analyze Data, Understand the Context of the Problem

This problem of incorrect rules is not just limited to problem solving, but also day-to-day decision making. As a process engineer who was spent a good deal of time doing process improvement work, it is amazing how many people say they did something because “that’s the process.” You might think that hearing that makes a process engineer feel good because at least people are thinking in terms of process, but it does not. When someone follows a process that critical thinking would have said not to, then I have concerns with the process and the communication around how decisions should be made by these employees. Timothy Leary once said “To think for yourself you must question authority.” In this case, to think for yourself you must question the process (or rules).

Many times people think they are doing the right thing by following the rules, but if the rules are wrong then you are not doing the right thing, sorry! I also don’t think “right thing” and “wrong thing” are as subjective as one might think if you have the right customer focus or other similar common vision/mission to make your decisions on. Having the right focus allows you to evaluate problems and decisions just as effectively as the rules set to guide you.

Related: Words of Wisdom and a Customer Focus

So the next time you have to make a decision or when you wonder if the process is correct, think about what “rules” you are using to make your decision. Are the rules correct and are you correctly framing the problem and the solution around them? Or is the there a different problem because something doesn’t align with the perceived rules, and maybe the rules are what are causing the perceived problem in the first place!


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