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Standards and Exceptions

Christmas Music?

christmas-carolersI’ve been listening to – and singing along with – Christmas music recently. (I’t is December, after all, when I write this.) Listening to my collection of carols has made me think about the selections available to us.And that made me think of business. Let me explain.

I recently heard a statement attributed to Hyrum Smith, founder of Franklin day planners, that said (in essence), “Nothing new has been invented in the last six thousand years. I’ts just what we do with it.” Christmas carol seem to be similar. There are amazingly few new ones. (Let me dwell on the music for a minute then bring it back to business, if that’s okay.) What we have are the standards – the canon – of Christmas songs. The original versions that were written between 50 and 500 years ago. These are the theme, the standard. This is what we learn as grade school kids. They are the basics. Then there is the music that current artists record. A Beach Boys or Beastie Boys rendition of Deck the Halls relies on the same idea. We, as an audience, know the standard, so they can then make variations – or exceptions – on that theme to make their version interesting. If we didn’t know the standard, we wouldn’t appreciate the variation, nor know why they did the song the way they did.

Standards in Business

Now, how this applies to business. In business we need to create standards – policies, systems, call them what you will – that govern the ways we interact with customers and employees. This defines what our business is and how we operate. These standards need to be ubiquitously taught and lived for them to become the standards that everyone knows and understands. This creates a basis against which we are judged in the interactions we have with others.

How od you handle exceptions?

How od you handle exceptions?


Then, come the exceptions. Exceptions happen. There is always some situation that we couldn’t expect or plan for. How they are handled is dependent on how well we have shared the standard.

As a business owner with over 150 employees I learned to hate hearing tha there was an exception, because – more often than not – that exception was not handled in a way that mimicked the standard. Far too often we had employees who completely threw out the standard when any exception came up. Back to the Christmas carol idea: that’s like making an arrangement of Joy to the World that featured music by the Beatles with words by the Monkees. There is nothing even close to the original for a reference point.

Key Application Ideas

There are a number of ways to create a culture where the standards are considered even during exceptions. For almost all of them, there are a few consistent ideas:

  1. Systems must be written down. If the system is not written down, it will constantly be changing to whatever is simplest at the moment. A written reference gives a standard to refer back to when things go wrong. This is one of the ideas that The EMyth Revisited is famous for: written systems. That standard of reference is the key to creating a franchise model business, or even to an owner being able to take a vacation or just a day off without the business collapsing around her.
  2. Employees must be trained. The greatest standards and systems in the world won’t mean a thing if no one in the company knows them, or why they exist. Early and consistent training is key to making the standards a part of the culture.
  3. Standards must be based in a deeper meaning. In the book Anything You Want, Derek Sivers, shares how CD Baby started to get it’s standards written. When an exception came to him, one of many that he’d endured, he finally had enough and gathered a team around him to explain how to handle it. He started by explaining why CD Baby existed: to serve independent musicians. Then he shared how to handle the current situation with that reason in mind. From that time forward, when problems came up, he handled them the same way, always keeping the purpose for the company’s existence in mind.

Do you know the standards within your company, so you know how to make exceptions fit within the larger picture? Or are you just randomly swatting at problems whenever and wherever they arise?

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