Don’t fence me in

Nordstrom, as management consultant Michael Solomon pointed out in a recent LinkedIn column, has only one statement in its employee handbook: “Use your best judgment in all situations. There will be no additional rules.” This is not, as he goes on to observe, quite true:

There is, however, a second element of nearly equal importance at Nordstrom and at every other great organization: standards.  Additional guidelines and internal, codified knowledge that support these employees and multiply the power of their “best judgment.”

The word “standard” might remind you of “standard work” in the Toyota Way. Toyota insists that standard work is what allows for creativity and initiative. Examples they give, in addition to the factory floor, include outlines that writers use to structure their work and even the score of a symphony.

But don’t standards rob employees of creativity and initiative?  Don’t “control” and “initiative” trade off, that is, more of one, less of the other? They could, of course, but there are at least a couple of other ways to look at standards that will actually encourage initiative:

  • As parameters, within which people in the system can use their brains to solve problems. Doctrine could serve this purpose, that is, it documents the philosophy under which we’re going to operate, but doesn’t tell how to solve any particular problem.
  • As “internal, codified knowledge,” which does indeed tell how to solve particular problems, but only in the spirit of “based on our years of experience, this is the best way we know how do it right now.” People use their creativity and initiative to continuously improve the standards.

You can find examples of both of these in Solomon’s article.  As I’ve claimed many times on these pages, one of the hallmarks of lean / maneuver approaches is that they break tradeoffs that were long held as inviolable, so it may be that the Nordstrom system / culture is another implementation of the theory underlying those approaches.

Although standards must be somewhat explicit, and although Boyd did emphasize implicit over explicit, standards and standardized work fit nicely into Boyd’s framework by incorporating them as components of Einheit. Standards (or doctrine, if you prefer) are what allow a commander to use the shaping techniques of Schwerpunkt and Auftragstaktik. If you want both standards and initiative/creativity, however, it’s probably well not to regard the standards themselves as a Schwerpunkt. Think about that a bit.

One caution, though. Every organization that I can think of that’s successfully used this approach also obsesses on training, both individual and as organizations. As Boyd noted:

Furthermore, a la General Blumentritt, it presupposes “an officers training institution which allows the subordinate a very great measure of freedom of action and freedom in the manner of executing orders and which primarily calls for independent daring, initiative and sense of responsibility.” (Patterns 74, emp. added)

To be effective, this type of training is not only for individuals starting in the company and it is not just done in the classroom:

Arrange setting and circumstances so that leaders and subordinates alike are given opportunity to continuously interact with external world, and with each other, in order to more quickly make many-sided implicit cross-referencing projections, empathies, correlations, and rejections as well as create the similar images or impressions, hence a similar implicit orientation, needed to form an organic whole. (Organic Design 23)

This might be another way of saying “Use your best judgment in all situations.”

One thought on “Don’t fence me in

  1. ““Use your best judgment in all situations. There will be no additional rules.”” is simply a Cheap Trick .

    A Cheap-Trick is structure building and strategy is structure building. This tells me that Nordstroms is using strategy over the OODA process, whose narrative it is that is locked inside its book of standards.

    I mean, because of this “cheap trick”, if those working with customers are doing their job right, all the entropy in the person (customer) coming into the store is locked into the expected sale. If the Nordstroms worker is doing their job wrong, then all the entropy is locked into the unexpected (the customer doesn’t want the product).

    The “trick” is never lowering standards and still be in business. For that to work you need a strong structure that is able to deal with friction, as its culture deals with resources.

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