[Apologies. I am confined to dialup at the moment, so no images with this post.]
In this post I’d like to look at the usefulness and limitations of rules. I’d like to start by telling you three stories.
1. In Australia, where I live, there is a concern for workplace health and safety. This is excellent, important and should be encouraged in my view. This has meant that there have been many procedures invented in workplaces to ensure safety.
Imagine this scenario in a workplace. A first year apprentice is outfitted correctly – his hair is not too long, so it can’t be caught in the machinery; his overalls are done up correctly; he is wearing appropriate head and eye protection; and the appropriate protective footwear. The machinery has the appropriate guards in place so people can’t inadvertently slip and be injured. Is everyone safe? What if I tell you that apprentices like to throw chunks of wood at a spinning machine and seeing where they land. I’ve met the person who saw this happening.
2. Imagine you are driving along normally and you see a car heading for you on your side of the road. It is time to consider whether you should drive on the wrong side of the road too.
3. Another true story. It is about a church organisation dedicated to caring for people with a disability. This service is dedicated to guarding the health of these people and helping them to become included in the community. It is necessary for this service to be insured – for the sake of both its staff and clients. The insurance company naturally doesn’t want to pay out its money – and, as this would mean an injury or harm to the staff or clients, that should be the desire of the service too. (Shouldn’ it?) The insurance company wants the environment as safe as possible. This should be the desire of the service too. (Shouldn’t it?) This means, that for insurance purposes, the service needs to control the environment as much as possible, so that they can make it as safe as possible. This means keeping the people with a disability within the houses the service controls as much as possible – directly contrary to helping them be involved in the community: not exactly a great outcome for the service of their clients.
This is not a problem with motivation. Everyone is concerned for the health of the clients. It is something about how the rules are made that is the problem. In this post I want to look at rules.
The purpose of the illustrations about the apprentice and driving is that the rules can’t take account of everything. Even if our context isn’t literally infinite, it effectively is. Something unexpected can always happen. An unexpected change can occur, a factor we hadn’t thought of affects the situation. There is no way to write a set of rules that takes account of everything. The appropriate “rule” for our apprentice is, “Don’t be an idiot”. The appropriate”rule” for our car driver is, “Do the safest thing you can”.
Which leads to the point that: the rules are made for a purpose – and sometimes acting with the purpose in mind means breaking the rules: like driving on the wrong side of the road when it is the way to avoid an accident. In my examples above the purpose is to guard people’s health.
With the car example it is pretty clear what needs to happen. With the insurance for the disability service it is much less clear.
Rules, routines, habits – they can all simplify our lives; and they are all useful for this. Sometimes though we need to let go of them. The problem I think is that we come to rely on them. They become invisible to us.
Very occasionally this forgetting can be a serious problem. Medical people are trained not to treat those close to them – it is thought to interfere with “objectivity” and have other difficulties. This may generally be a good thing. Until a group of medical people are involved in a car accident – and they can’t act because these people are friends. A medical student friend of mine knew the people that this happened to.
There are two important things to keep in mind when we are using rules and routines:
1. No rule can take account of every situation.
2. Rules are to serve a purpose. Sometimes the rules need to be revised, or broken, for the sake of the purpose.
Where do you find rules are useful to you? Have you had to change a rule you had lived by? Please tell me your experience with rules in the comments.
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