Standards for the Sake of Standards

I love standards.  I wish we had more of them.  I wish the IEC 61131-3 programming language standard was actually a standard and not a suggestion.  But of course, sometimes we end up with standards we could do without…

They’re a lot like those dumb laws you hear about in your email inbox like, “You cannot chain your alligator to a fire hydrant.”  You know this law only exists because someone, at some point, chained their alligator to a fire hydrant.  Some of these dumb standards exist because they are no longer relevant.  Dumb standards keep hanging around because we are so concerned about telling people what to do that we forget to say why.  Maybe this is because it seems obvious at the time. 

I was contemplating this the other day when a co-worker related to me the fable of the five monkeys (reprinted here for your convenience):

There was an interesting experiment that started with five monkeys in a cage. A banana hung inside the cage with a set of steps placed underneath it. After a while, a monkey went to the steps and started to climb towards the banana, but when he touched the steps, he set off a spray that soaked all the other monkeys with cold water. Another monkey tried to reach the banana with the same result. It didn’t take long for the monkeys to learn that the best way to stay dry was to prevent any monkey from attempting to reach the banana.

The next stage of the experiment was to remove the spray from the cage and to replace one of the monkeys with a new one. Of course, the new monkey saw the banana and went over to climb the steps. To his horror, the other monkeys attacked him. After another attempt, he learnt that if he touched the steps, he would be assaulted.

Next, another of the original five was replaced with a new monkey. The newcomer went to the steps and was attacked. The previous newcomer joined in the attack with enthusiasm!

Then, a third monkey was replaced with a new one and then a fourth. Every time a newcomer approached the steps, he was attacked. Most of the monkeys beating him had no idea why they were not allowed to climb the steps or why they were joining in the beating of the newest monkey.

After replacing the fifth monkey, none of the monkeys had ever been sprayed with water. Still, no monkey ever approached the steps. Why not? Because as far as they knew it was the way it had always been done around here… and that is how company policy begins.

Another co-worker of mine would say that this situation exists because the monkeys are only passing on data, not knowledge.  The monkeys have created a culture that is immutable to change because the culture rewards following and enforcing the rules more than understanding why the rules exist.

We need standards for efficiency.  Part of their value is as a mechanism for passing information between people.  We don’t want to re-invent the wheel and we don’t want to repeat our mistakes, but we pass up a valuable opportunity to pass on knowledge if we don’t document the why of each standard.  Imagine being a new employee and being handed the company’s electrical controls standards document.  Here’s an excerpt:

Standard 10.3(a) sub. 5: All wires will be terminated with ferrules.

I can imagine why this standard might exist – too many hours spent troubleshooting electrical problems caused by loose wire strands shorting out on nearby terminals.  But if you’re a brand new employee straight out of school, would you understand that’s why this standard exists?  When people don’t know why, they tend to make up their own reasons.

What happens two decades down the road when we’re all using carbon nanotube wires or some other non-stranded alternative?  Without knowing why the standard exists, we might try to enforce this standard in a way that doesn’t make sense.  Without a clear why stated, we risk allowing this standard to become another dumb standard, making the company less efficient.

So please, let’s make a new standard for future standards.  Every time you write a standard, include a short paragraph with it describing the history of the decision and the reasoning behind it.  Take the opportunity to pass on your knowledge!

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