Three-Part Recipe for Workplace Success: Developing Procedures

Soldiers execute a standard battle drill in the desert.
Formal procedure create leadership freedom, allow rapid responses, and provide for internal communications.

“Contact right!”, shouted the point man at the sound of small arms fire. The team reacted instinctively. Every member of the team came on line and returned fire from covered positions. The team leader assessed the situation and reported back to the squad leader.  The squad leader directed his second team to flank the enemy position. When ready they laid down suppressing fire drawing the attention away from the first team. The second team leader came up on the radio, “Shift left!” The first team adjusted their aim to the left as the second team began to move across the enemy position. As the second team neared the middle of the enemy position he called for the first team to cease firing and they did. Once across the position, the second team leader advised the first team leader. The first team leader led his Soldiers across the position 90 degrees from the second team’s assault. Within a few minutes the shooting stopped. The enemy was suppressed and withdrew. The squad was victorious. 

React to Contact is a critical Infantry battle drill. It is the foundation of ground combat tactics used by Hannibal during the Second Punic War.  A well drilled squad or platoon can execute the drill with the few words shared in the above story because every squad and platoon in the Army does it the same way, well at least the successful squads and platoons. When executed well, a smaller force has the ability to defeat larger forces. This basic principal of movement is a procedure known to all Infantrymen because it works. This drill allows leaders to initiate action with few words and little direction. In this example the squad leader was the senior leader yet the only decision he made and direction he provided was to a single team leader to flank the enemy. In this battle drill there are only three decisions for the squad leader to make; commit your second team to suppressive fire and allow the platoon to flank, execute the flank with your second team, or break contact. Infantry squad leaders and team leaders rehearse this drills hundreds of times so they know when to suppress, when to attack, and when to withdraw.

Leading an organization of any size becomes easier with formal, practiced procedures. Formal procedures appear to remove a leader’s freedom to make decisions. The opposite is true. Well thought procedures allow leaders to detach from the current crisis and plan for what comes next. Benefits include increased speed by reducing the number of decisions required of a leader, specified lateral lines of communication increase responses, and required actions for teams and individuals without additional instruction. 

Reducing Decision Options

Freedom is defined by dictionary.com as the state of being free or at liberty rather than in confinement or under physical restraint; or the power to determine action without restraint. Formal procedures may confine some leaders because they have limited choices. However, well thought out procedures identify best practices and offer a short menu of options proven to work reliably. Formal procedures allow leaders to stick their heads above the weeds and make big picture decisions

Standard operating procedures allow leaders to look at the bigger picture rather than getting stuck in details.
Procedures free leaders to look at the big picture rather than restrict their attention to what is happening in the weeds.

At the front-line level of the React to Contact Drill, the squad leader has a variety of choices. He can direct the supporting team to provide additional fire power to suppress the enemy and ask the platoon to flank. The squad leader can establish a base of fire from the flanking element and have the element who established contact to maneuver across the enemy’s front. He can call for artillery or air support. He can withdraw. However, it is only through the actions of the team in contact, executing without direction, that he as the freedom to evaluate the situation and determine which course of action is best.  Without this drill, the squad and team leaders would have to solve each problem as it occurs.

In organizations outside the military the same principals are true.  The front line leader has a process to execute. For example, a new employee is assigned to work in the leader’s team. If the organization has a process to orient new employees, none of the leaders need to spend much time figuring out what the new person needs to learn. The leaders follow the check list, tailor the learning to the new person’s position, and the new person quickly becomes a functioning member of the team. Without a procedure to welcome new team members, leaders loose time figuring out what the new person needs to know. They make lots of decisions about what parts of what organizational documents new team members need to read. The leaders need to figure out what administrative processes must be completed to ensure the employee is paid, receives benefits, and knows what is expected of him or her.

A new employee orientation procedure takes away some decision making from leaders but only because the leaders decided earlier what new team members needed to do. Now instead of spending a few days figuring out what to teach the new guy, who should teach it, and where the information is stored, the leader turns to the procedure and execute. The procedure frees his time to decide on other matters.

Lateral Lines of Communication

Allow leaders to communicate with their peers to coordinate actions and permit senior leaders to continue to look forward.
Lateral communications ensures leaders are not bombarded with information they do not need and only to make decisions appropriate for their level.

Establishing internal lines of communication allow lower level leaders to coordinate actions and support without having to always run to the boss. The boss does need to know what is going on, but does not need to make or approve every decision. Establishing peer-to-peer communication channels frees up senior leaders to look farther ahead. Procedures specify what types of decisions senior leaders make and what types of decisions leaders lower on the org chart may make.

In the infantry squad example, peer leaders, the team leaders, directly communicated their intentions and directions to move and shift fires. This communication allowed the squad leader monitor the situation. The squad leader had the freedom to call for more resources and determine what actions to take after the enemy attack was stopped.

A non-military example of this principal is a nonprofit providing a service to their clients.  A new client is referred for service and appears at the office. The person meeting with the client knows the organization has a procedure for new client intakes and referrals. The employee welcomes the client and moves them through the intake procedure and determines the client’s needs. The employee directly contacts outside organizations necessary to provide resources and services for the client without having to clear each referral through a manager. Organizational leaders recognized the needs for those services and previously established processes to refer clients. As a result, the clients receive services and resources quickly because the number of people involved and the levels of communication are reduced. 

Action without Instructions

Formal procedures provide direction so others know what to do in a variety of situations without direction.

Formal procedures provide direction to employees about how to perform their jobs. Procedures spell out what kinds of decisions employees can make and what decisions and information require the boss’s attention. In the infantry squad example, each team member knows when they received contact to move on line to ensure they had clear lines of fire towards the enemy and to find a place of cover to return fire. They did not have to wait for direction from the team leader. They were expected to take those actions without directs in order to free the team leader to report the situation to the squad leader.

In an example from the private sector, Tim Ferriss talks about how he empowered his assistants to deal with customer services issues in his book The Four Hour Work Week and several of his podcasts. He found his assistant was reaching out to him several times every day for him to decide how to deal with unhappy customers. Tim realized he was not able to focus on growing his new business when he was dealing with those types of issues. He developed a list of ways the customer service assistant could offer help without consulting Tim and what types of customer issues he reserved to resolve himself. As a result, Ferriss was able to return his attention to growing the business and his customers received improved and faster resolutions to their problems.

Procedures receive a bad rap because organizations implement them poorly and never review them to determine their continued relevance.  The purpose of procedures is to create leadership freedom by providing a menu of choices for common events rather than problem solving every time something similar happens. As a result, the leader is free to focus on developing teams and improving the organization.  If the decisions a procedure allows become irrelevant, they need to be changed. Therefore, leaders must periodically review all procedures for relevance. Failing to do so causes confinement rather than freedom.

Quality procedures help leaders at all levels achieve freedom, increase the speed or response, and improve the quality of service by reducing the number of decisions leaders need to make. Communications improve communications laterally and vertically because leaders only receive the information they need to decide. Employees are more effective when addressing problems and opportunities.

Leaders and workers frequently view formal procedures as limiting their freedom, however, they provide a structured format for leaders to take action without additional control or restraint. Employees who are trained well know what is expected of them in many situations allowing them to make decisions without always running to the boss for guidance. Like the well run battle drill, formal procedures direct action without additional inputs and free leaders to lead.

Reference

Definition of freedom was retrieved from: https://www.dictionary.com/browse/freedom on 8/28/19.

Photo Credits

  • Infantry Attack from pxhere.com with a 0CC license. No attribution provided.
  • Dictionary by John Mark Smith from unsplash.com with a CC Attribution license.
  • Tin Can Phone by Chris Tag as CWD802 from pexel.com with a pexel.com license.
  • Arrow from pxhere.com with a 0CC license. No attribution provided.

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