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There are countless quotes about rules, most of them negative.

Rules are made to be broken. –unknown

There are no rules here – we’re trying to accomplish something. –Thomas A. Edison

Rules and models destroy genius and art. –William Hazlitt

The common perception of rules is that they are stifling, limit free thought, and create a rigid, inflexible organization. The truth is the exact opposite. While there is merit in the belief that the individual benefits by breaking rules, it is at a cost to the entire organization. People need to be able to count on each other to plan. They need to know what to expect from each other. They need to trust each other.

All of those things come from rules. Now, that said, rules, in general are necessary, but there are bad rules. But instead of breaking those rules, change them. 

When people feel that a rule is oppressive or that it is harmful, they should work on getting it changed. But, important point here, they should not just change it. Why? Because rules affect many people. Well-conceived rules should have a net gain for the organization, even though individuals may have a cost to following them. Changing a rule unilaterally may cause more harm in another part of the company.

Consider kanban. A strong kanban system has rules that must be followed religiously. If people don’t drop cards on time, or pull parts out of the wrong bins, the system crumbles. Sure, there might be a reason for breaking the rule at the time, but that only benefits the person breaking the rule. Perhaps production was behind, so the operator started pulling from a new bin without dropping a card. The benefit is small and short lived, but it creates a scramble for the materials team, and possibly a stock out that will shut down the line for far longer than a quick trip to the kanban post would have. The cost to others, in the long run, is much higher than the benefit to the individual.

Sometimes, though, a rule is outdated or just plain bad. While rules should be rigidly followed if they exist, they should also be easy to change if they are bad. If you don’t like a rule, change it.

Rules are not necessarily sacred, principles are. –Franklin D. Roosevelt

But even when there are rules, you can still excel within them. The trick is to know the rules and use them as a basis for improvement. Go back to the kanban example. Sure, it can be a hassle to follow those inventory management rules, but it also enables a lot of progress. Standard Work is much easier with kanban in place. Bins can be turned into racks that hold parts ready to use, or they can be kitted to provide a poka yoke to a process. Good rules are a foundation for excellence.

You have to learn the rules of the game. And then you have to play better than anyone else. –Albert Einstein


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