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James Taylor's Decision Management

James Taylor

Work the rules don't work to rule

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Keith used a similar title in a different post last week - Complying with rules is not the same as working to rule- and it made me think about the phrase "working to rule". Now "work to rule" is defined in the American Heritage Dictionary thus:

"A job action in which employees do no more than the minimum required by the rules of a workplace in order to cause a slowdown."

Clearly this is not a good thing - by following all the rules all the time workers expect to make things go slower rather than better. If "working to rule" is bad then why is it good to build a system that works the rules, enforces them and generally makes sure they are followed? Well at a basic level the automation of rules, so that they can be enforced all the time instead of selectively, is key. A work to rule slows things down because we are in fact intolerant of the time it takes to enforce all the rules. Sometimes this is because the rules are unnecessarily onerous butsometimes it is because we do not like the rules or because we prefer to rely on our own judgment (see "Blink" for more on this topic). So how does enforcing all the rules all the time help? Well it will depend on your situation but examples include:

  • The rules will check all data that might be relevant to a decision in a systematic way, even data that does not seem important. If the data could make a difference it will be evaluated. Skipping these rules might speed things up but will contribute to people's tendency to consider too narrow a range of factors.
  • One of the ways to "work to rule" identified in Labor Notes is "Never go by memory, check your reference material" and another is "Never use your own judgment—ask!". These are examples where automation of the rules can really help as no-one has to go by their memory (the reference material is checked by the rules) and no-one needs to trust their own judgment too much - see this refund story for an example. After all the people on the front line cannot be expected to have the whole picture nor can they be expected to go through checking everything while a customer waits. Automating the rules can make it easier all round, in contrast to having your staff work to rule.
  • Sometimes the rules are designed to ensure a lack of bias - for instance in lending - and you really want to make sure those rules are enforced all the time.

In many ways the fact that "working to rule" means slowing things down explains why you should automate business rules not write them in policy manuals.


I just wanted to say that you brought up some interesting points in this post. I have had only positive experiences with automated business rules, so I completely concur with your advice here. Thanks for sharing!


Interesting points. One thing that you may want to consider whenever is that speed of automation very rarely keeps pace with the pace of business development.

Thus, you can have employees who are "working to comply" with their tools, instead of working to satisfy their customers. You can see examples of this any time you call an 800 number and talk to someone who understands your problem, is authorized to fix the problem, but can't get their tools to accept the data entry.

The moral of the story is that you can automate a lot of things, but if you remove the ability for humans to use their judgement then then you have built a system that is guaranteed to frustrate.

James Taylor blogs about decision-management technologies such as predictive analytics and business rules, discussing how they deliver agility, improve business processes and bring intelligent automation to SOA.

James Taylor

James Taylor blogs on decision management for ebizQ, and is an independent consultant on decision management, predictive analytics, business rules, and related topics.

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