Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Red tape, freedom and rules

Americans like their freedom.  That usually means no restrictions that prevent us from doing what we want to do.  We use the term "red tape" to mean restrictions and requirements that must be met to accomplish a goal, especially if there seem to be a large number of such obstacles or especially tough or arbitrary ones.  One good aspect of our national life has been that rules and regulations have been relatively basic and uncomplicated.  That may be changing, but the extent that people are able to understand laws and regulations and obey them is one aspect of a good place to live.  Having officers and officials that enforce the rules evenhandedly and without demanding private payoffs also relates to a smooth and happy life in any nation.  

In the early chapters of The Art of Choosing, Prof. Iyengar makes clear the value of having freedom to choose, even in small instances, for giving people hope and health.  She and other sources make clear the value even to animals of some freedom to choose.  But she also makes clear that many instances of practitioners in several quite different religions who have complex, elaborate rules to follow that govern much of their thought and action report more happiness and less depression than practitioners of other religions that have far fewer or even virtually no rules and restrictions.  What we perceive as onerous red tape depends very much on how we view the rules, what stories we tell ourselves about why we are doing what we do.

It is easy to imagine rules that are too complex, too restricting, perhaps for happiness but also perhaps for success of the organization, or business or community.  Much of the work in the subject of "quality circles" and applications of ideas of W. Edwards Deming and Joseph Juran and related thought focuses on asking workers what rules, requirements or mandated procedures slow down or interfere with their work.  The term "micromanaging" is often used to describe too much oversight, where rules or even traditions and habitual ways of working interfere with success of a mission or purpose.
One of the jobs of managers, whether in a family, business, school or government is to try to keep an eye on the operation.  Someone needs to know what is going on and to be able to check if the operation and regulations are currently appropriate for current conditions and goals. Internal conditions change, sometimes abruptly and sometimes slowly and imperceptibly.  Surrounding conditions in the competition, the society, the world may call for small or large adjustments and changes.

There seems to be no blueprint which guarantees the best mix of freedom and restriction.  Any combination might be too tight or too loose in some situations.  I guess we just have to be alert and work for whatever continuity or change is best at the time.

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