Explicit Policies Make Life Simpler

With the start of a new school term upon me, I thought I’d round off my weekend blogging marathon (3 days, 3 posts) with a somewhat more reflective topic.

Until a couple of months ago, I hadn’t thought too much about the Kanban concept of policies in the context of our use of  Personal Kanban at home. Policies seemed like such a formal concept that has little place in a family context.  This seems especially true if you read the Business Dictionary definition of policies:

A set of policies are principles, rules, and guidelines formulated or adopted by an organization to reach its long-term goals and typically published in a booklet or other form that is widely accessible.

Just reading this definition conjures images of long, convoluted policy documents that you’d rather use to stack under your computer monitor than actually digest and apply. But policies in Kanban are defined very simply as the mechanisms, rules or processes that govern how a system works. By making these policies explicit, it becomes easy for others observing the system to understand it, and for those inside it to continually evaluate and improve the current mechanisms where necessary.

Here’s a typical example of a policy for a software development team using Kanban taken from this article by David Anderson:

If total WIP is 12 and we have a policy that 50% will be high priority then we want to ensure that 6 items are high priority.

Anybody studying this team’s board will immediately understand why there are 6 high priority items, and 6 items of a lesser priority.  Over time the team can assess whether this policy adequately addresses their operational needs or not, and change it to better fit the current circumstances.

More importantly, the moment someone in the team tries to pull a 7th high priority item, the team will be able to say “No! We already have 6 high priority items on the board.”  without having to think about and discuss the pros and cons of taking on a 7th item.

Taking the pain out of decisions

For me, this is the fundamental underlying importance of policies:

  • Policies reduce the mental energy required to make snap decisions.
  • Policies reduce the likelihood of giving in to a special request under duress.

By encapsulating recurring decisions in explicit policies, you spend the energy once on defining the acceptable outcomes for a given situation, effectively removing the stress of  spot decisions (so-called decision fatigue) and eliminating delays in getting work done efficiently.

Sticking to the rules sets you free 

But where does this fit in with families and life in general, you ask? Families don’t publish booklets with principles, rules and guidelines.

No, but every well-functioning family I know has a set of house rules that govern family behaviour and interaction. And everybody in the family clearly knows what they are and what the consequences are for breaking them, where applicable. Some families even have their rules written up in a visible spot in the house.  In fact, the more explicit and understood the house rules, the less energy the family spends in fighting the same battles, time and again, leaving them more space to get on with the simple joy of living.

And once you start looking around you, you realize how much of our lives is in fact built on explicit policies or rules. From the Ten Commandments that underpin ethical and moral decision-making if you’re a Christian, to simple rules for healthy living and parenting such as “don’t eat anything within 2 hours of going to sleep” or “bedtime on school nights is strictly 8 pm” – they’re all examples of explicit policies in action in our daily lives.

And without them, being human would be an even tougher challenge than it already is, sometimes.

What about you? Does your family have explicit policies or rules?  How do they make your live simpler? How did you arrive at them? Please share your thoughts in the Comments section.

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