Policy Myth: Doing the Right Things Wrong

Companies spend significant time, money, and resources developing, testing, and implementing policies, processes, and practices that represent the most efficient manner of conducting business and help safeguard against errors. In theory, that should be sufficient. After all, each employee should, by reviewing the policies, know precisely what to do and exactly how to do it. In practice, however, that is not always the case.

If the root cause for all policy violations was a lack of compliance, we could correct the course with reminders of negative consequences. Sometimes, consistent errors in the process aren’t rooted in ill intent; they’re the result of policy myth: a condition where the employee believes they are doing it precisely the way they should, but are not. That is, they are doing the right things — but they are doing them wrong.

I can explain it to you, but I can’t understand it for you.

Mark Twain wrote,“Mark Twain didn’t say half the things the internet says he said.” Abe Lincoln could advance the same complaint. We attribute so many quotes to both that Quote Investigator, a website devoted to figuring out if some of the most famous quotes are appropriately attributed to their alleged authors, was born.

But myths have a certain allure to them. First, they often contain enough “truth” to make them likely to, in fact, be true. Second, the brain loves a good shortcut and with so much information to retain, “probably true” is often good enough. Policy myths fit nicely into both categories.

First, the small errors are embedded within an overall process (or policy) — so at a cursory level, they appear correct. Second, employees have many functions to remember — so if the process seems to work, then it is good enough.

And such myths aren’t created overnight. Usually, they have innocuous beginnings. A seasoned employee takes a small shortcut here or makes a little change there. There is no immediate consequence, so the next time they repeat the simplified process or perhaps add a more significant shortcut. And then, later, someone else observes what this employee is doing and does the same. Further along, a new employee learns this “policy or process” and then teaches another. And before too long, you have a policy myth: employees who wholeheartedly believe that the modified version is the company’s policy.

So in a way, the process is no different from that children’s telephone game. The first person whispers a phrase to another and the phrase gets passed down the line, coming out completely different from the original words.

An Innocuous $6 Billion a Year Problem

According to industry reports, companies lose about $40 billion a year due to theft and error. Errors, or mistakes, account for an estimated 15% or $6 billion of those annual losses.

If my math is correct, that is about $115 million a week in mistakes. A very large “oops” indeed. And at that price tag, errors are worthy of our attention.

Most companies recognize the cost of compliance issues and regularly audit location practices. And yet the errors continue, which begs the question of why?

At least part of the answer is this: the audit may tell us what is wrong, but we make the incorrect assumption of why it is wrong. More often, we assume the cause of the failed question is that employees choose not to follow a policy without understanding their understanding of the policy.

You can’t fix what you don’t know is broken.

When I was in second grade, I struggled with math (by the way, that was not the only year). Throughout the first quarter, each homework assignment, quiz, and test was accompanied with a red C-. Halfway through the quarter, the grade was joined with See Me written below it. At the end of that comment, my teacher added exclamation points.

My frustration was apparent at home and my mother often asked, “Did you see her?” to which I replied, “Yes.”

At the end of the term, my mother attended a parent-teacher conference. Upon her return, I was eager to know what had transpired. Overall, Mom was happy as I was an excellent student in all subjects except the dreaded math. She was, however, particularly concerned that I had lied to her.

“I spoke to your teacher,” she said. “She said that you had not seen her about your math grades.”

I was honestly confused. I had seen her. She stood right in front of the class, so how could I not have seen her?

I was a bit too literal (at seven years old). The lack of a verb, such as “come see me,” led to my misunderstanding. Although even today, I would argue that “speak with me” would have been the more illustrative direction.

But therein lies the problem. I could not, on my own, solve the dilemma. I confidently believed that I was doing the correct thing. That is, I had no idea that the “see me” directive was broken, so I continued to stare really hard when the teacher taught math.

And that is often at the heart of why audit scores alone don’t solve the problem. In my childhood example, the teacher didn’t escalate the math issue sooner because I was a straight-A student in everything else. It’s the same thing in stores — we overlook a few wrong questions because, overall, the location scored well.

But one has to wonder the exact cost of those missed points even for a location that scored 90% on the audit.

The Root of All Appeals and How to Dispel a Myth

Certainly, people make mistakes. Additionally, employees will take shortcuts knowingly and even intentionally avoid specifically required processes. But how do we differentiate between those who know and don’t do what they’re supposed to and those who don’t know, but believe they’re doing what they’re supposed to?

Assuming your company conducts regular audits, there are several opportunities to determine if you have an intentional non-compliance issue or if you have a well-intended policy myth in practice.

The first is after a location audit. Reviewing the audit exceptions (wrong answers) is the ideal time to discover the root cause. It’s a matter of how that discussion is handled. Taking the additional time to ask the manager to explain their understanding of the policy will immediately inform you of their policy belief system. And, more importantly, provide the opportunity to correct the course.

The second is to take a closer look at when a store manager appeals for a particular result. People will vocally defend scores they believe are wrong. Again, it can’t be as simple as: “We did that correctly, so return the points.” Understanding if they misunderstood requires that they explain “how” they conducted the specific activity for which they were marked off.

And finally, a comparison of location self-audits to a more objective audit can indicate myths and misunderstandings. It’s easy to assume the self-audit score is higher because they “went easy” on themselves. But in some cases, consistent differences in scores may indicate that they are auditing their myths and getting them all correct.

There are, of course, several other methods to prevent policy myths from occurring in the first place. Simple one-page policies; regular review of practices; updates in writing when these changes occur (so employees don’t view P&P as outdated and begin making their own rules); and, of course, proper training and testing of knowledge.

As stated, employees will make mistakes. However, we need to avoid the policy myths that cause employees to believe that the wrong way is the right way.

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