Improving Policies

By Guy Higgins

At the risk of appearing to be political, I want to talk about the demands for new gun control legislation in the wake of the horrendous shootings at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, because it prompted me to think about the value of adding new strictures to existing ones. I do not intend to debate or even mention existing, proposed or even possible legislation, but rather look at it from the perspective of corporate or organizational policies.

When I was on active duty in the Navy, I frequently observed (somewhat tongue in cheek, but only somewhat) that the last time a completely original US Navy letter was written was when John Paul Jones was in the Navy (that would be the US Navy, not the Imperial Russian Navy). Every letter since then was simply a modification of some previous letter.

Having worked in the Navy, the Department of Defense, a major aerospace corporation and a small company, I’m convinced that such is, in fact, true. Everything we write is a derivative of something that someone has written before (except, of course, for my wise and insightful posts). Certainly doing that saves an enormous amount of time and effort and is not to be condemned in toto. At the same time, by never starting anew, we risk creating directives of various ilk that result in policy by sedimentation where every new idea is simply layered on top of previous ideas.

In the iconic software engineering book, The Mythical Man Month, the author, Frederick Brooks, points out that, at some point in the progression of a software program, it becomes highly inefficient – and even counterproductive – to patch the existing code and becomes necessary to completely recompile the program to incorporate all changes and patches into the basic code. I’ll boldly assert that exactly the same is true for policies and procedures.

Whenever a policy or procedure is being modified or rewritten entirely, we (that would be the leadership) need to consider the following:

  • What are the factors driving the change (update or replacement)?
  • What is the cost of monitoring/enforcing adherence to the existing policy?
  • What will be the cost of monitoring/enforcing adherence to the new policy?
  • What is the cost of making the change from the old to the new policy?
  • What is the cost versus the benefit of the change/replacement?

In the light of the answers to those questions, leadership needs to ask a similar set of questions about the value of the policy itself. Is the benefit of the policy worth the cost of implementation?

When I was a Navy Program Manager, we had to monitor the company with which we had a contract for their adherence to the management of government property. I don’t know when the original requirement was levied, but I am certain of two things:

  • Holding industry responsible for maintaining control of government property that was “loaned” to them for the convenience/advantage of the government was a really good idea.
  • The documentation levying the requirement was really old, and, even though updated periodically, still retained massive, unchanged tracts of the original text.

As a result of the modification of the requiring documentation, we were spending a lot of money (yes, it was the company’s money, but those costs got folded back into the overhead rates that the government paid, so it was really taxpayer money in the end) inventorying and controlling material that was, basically, not worth it. At the same time, we did not control some reusable items that cost a great deal. Specifically, we required the company to inventory and control two IBM 286 computers (those were the ones with CPU cycle times measured in hertz vs. hundreds of megahertz) that had a value at the time of about nothing, nada, zip, zero, but were viewed in the documentation as “computers” (which at the time the document was drafted referred to something like huge mainframe computers that cost millions of dollars). While the company was watching these two desktop antiques, we (collectively, the company and the Navy) were not tracking the aluminum containers in which we delivered missiles. The containers were fully reusable and cost more than $15,000 each. I chased one of my lieutenants out to find empty containers and, within about two months, he found over a hundred of them (I’ll do the math – that’s $1,500,000).

The message is that things change and sometimes policies need to be rewritten, as the Roman poet Horace would have said “ab ovo” (from the egg). We, the leadership always need to ask if our policies, procedures, directives, etc., are value-added and worth the cost as they are, if they need to be cancelled, if they need to be updated or if they need to be replaced completely.

Layering new ideas on top of old is never a good idea and is particularly poor leadership if the old or existing policies are not reviewed in depth for cost effectiveness. It may feel good to issue a new policy, but self-congratulation is a poor basis for policy.


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