A stressed employee takes a pause in the warehouse

Kill a stupid rule

Life is complicated. Work doesn’t have to be. Let’s simplify it. The benefits of simplification are higher profits, employee retention and customer satisfaction.

According to the World’s Simplest Brands report (ninth edition), 57 percent of customers are inclined to pay a premium for simpler experiences. And 76 percent of customers are more willing to refer your company if you provide simpler experiences and communication.

Your employees and customers are craving simplicity. To simplify, kill a stupid rule (a concept from Lisa Bodell’s book, “Kill the Company: End the Status Quo, Start an Innovation Revolution”).

My company, Berkshire Money Management, has grown. Since the pandemic, the number of clients we served grew by roughly 30 percent. In response, our employee headcount doubled. That ratio may feel off to you, but like Wayne Gretzky, BMM’s success comes from skating to where the puck is headed.

The theme of our last group meeting was “pause to grow.” What worked at one growth stage won’t necessarily work at the next. The intelligent solution isn’t to add more complexity, but to eliminate it. If you want to grow, growth isn’t the starting point. First, you must reset.

When people are overwhelmed with workflows, we have less room to work on big ideas. As Bodell puts it, we’re not going to let busyness get in the way of business. We’re going to kill stupid rules because they drag on productivity and morale. Rules are supposed to simplify life, not make it more complicated. Killing a stupid rule does not mean blaming others or highlighting a mistake. It’s about evolving.

Amy owns a Cooperstown, N.Y., energy distribution company. The drivers of the delivery segment used to input the carbon copy data of delivery slips into their customer relationship management (CRM) software. The CRM was integrated with their billing system. It was efficient when they had five drivers, and the office manager doubled as the accounts payable “department.”

Today, Amy has 15 drivers and needs 20. What once worked became a stupid rule. Amy needed her drivers on the road more, so she stripped them of their CRM and accounts payable duties and centralized the process. The time saved was roughly equal to the equivalent of an additional driver. Plus, by removing the administrative roles from the job, Amy made the driver jobs more attractive to potential workers that might have gone elsewhere.

What was smart can become stupid due to new trends, insights or growth. Stupid rules cause more work and make the simple more complex.

Having a conversation with your team about killing stupid rules is easy. This may be the most engaged your team has been in a long time. Gather your team and tell them you want their input on what rules should be eliminated to reduce frustration and increase efficiency. Cross-department collaboration is helpful because it allows new perspectives.

Explain that a rule might also be a routine or an unstated policy that never changed because “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” It may be an assumption and not a rule. When HBO went through this process, it was routine that meetings would last two hours. They were important meetings, but they took up a lot of time because everyone felt they had to say something to be valued. HBO killed the two-hour meeting rule, limiting the duration to one hour. This allowed more focus and gave permission to employees to refrain from saying something just for the sake of being heard.

When you ask your workers to list the stupid rules to kill, you’ll hear an especially gladsome employee exclaim, “Boy, do I have a bunch of those for you!” Everyone else will join in. And they may be right. But keep in mind that the phrasing — killing a stupid rule – is designed to maximize candid discussion. Do not take it personally if they kill a rule you created; it’s their job to be brutally honest.

However, not every rule that people dislike is stupid. Let people explain why they picked the rule (aside from its annoyance). Be sure to get feedback from other team members who will be affected by the change. Once you’ve made your list, make it a quick kill. Some rules you can eliminate right away. Announce them in front of the group immediately to let them know you mean business. If you are unsure about a few rules, suspend those rules and see if anyone misses them or if there is a negative impact.

For a deeper dive, through the course of a workweek or a process, have someone from another department shadow every aspect of it and ask questions. Why is there a meeting about this? Why are these people in the discussion? Why does approval have to flow through this person? Why does this person need to sign off? Ask “why” of every what, when, where, and how.

Then ask, “How can I make this simpler while accomplishing the same level of quality?” The result is not just freedom from the complex but a sense of project ownership and creative space for employees. Not to mention the joy of not being micromanaged. It’s familiar for many businesses to have multilayers of decision-making, leaving workers’ plates full of stuff that’s not valuable to the company.

Nathaniel, the office manager of an apartment management company in Pittsfield, brought every purchasing request to accounts payable. Every purchasing request was brought to Nathaniel so that they could be delivered in batch form to accounts payable. The idea was to protect accounts payable from too much work, but no one was saving Nathaniel.

Each person bringing requests to Nathaniel had to be involved in a back-and-forth exchange. They had to wait for a new keyboard or a plumbing fixture. It was a stupid rule that everything had to flow through Nathaniel, and some purchases had to wait when there were immediate needs. So, they killed it.

A second look at the process found that most payments were under $500. Workers were given their own credit cards. Through the credit card company’s portal, employee controls were set. Monthly purchases could only be made in specific expense categories and not exceed chosen limits. Tenants were serviced faster, and the simplicity freed up workers’ time.

Your team will feel heard and empowered due to your proactive leadership. Because of this new simplicity, employees will have more capacity to work on the projects that grow your business. When we’re overwhelmed with rules, we don’t have room for big ideas. Killing stupid rules will simplify things, and simplification is the fuel of innovation.

This article first appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on April 9, 2022.