Rules and Procedures

For tonight’s bus ride home I decided to sit in the front instead of the back, and one of the interesting things I saw was a couple of ladies running and waving towards the bus as it was about to pull away from the stop. The bus slowed down and stopped, and for a second it seemed like the driver would let them on. All he had to do was open the doors. It didn’t happen, and I realized he stopped only because he was trying to merge into through traffic. In the end, all the ladies could do was throw their hands up in the air and look exasperated.

This got me thinking about why the bus driver would do something like that. I know I would have pulled over to let the ladies on as a matter of course. I would have to fight a bunch of instincts in order to completely disregard someone actively seeking help that I can easily give.

The first thing that comes to mind is that the driver has a schedule to keep. If (and that’s a very hypothetical if) the driver stopped for every straggling passenger, it would be unfair to the passengers further down the line who would now suffer a delay. But, how much of a delay would there be? And, compared with the realities of bus schedules, would the delay even be significant? After all, the driver could have opened the door while waiting for the break in traffic. He could have killed three birds with one stone: the passengers getting to ride the bus, the bus company getting to make extra money, and he himself getting to feel good for being nice. So, why didn’t he do it?

In a recent post about work, I wrote about how rules and procedures (or maybe I should say broken ones) prevented me from solving problems quickly and efficiently. Since that time, I’ve seen a few more situations where insistence on following rules and procedures hinders a process instead of benefits it. I have noticed that blindly following rules and procedures is a big thing in Hong Kong, and tonight it occurred to me that the same thing could be happening in the case of the bus driver.

Most people probably want to be helpful in their jobs, no matter what their job is. In my previous case at work, I wanted to solve the IT problem in the shortest amount of time so that the user could get back to work. If I were a bus driver, I’d imagine that I’d probably want to take as many passengers from point A to point B as I could, because that’s my job. But then, imagine that each time you stop to pick up an extra passenger, your supervisor reprimands you for no reason other than skirting the established behavior. You’re encouraged to take a longer and more convoluted path to a solution, or worse, to not come to a solution at all. Perhaps, to add another layer of complexity to this, your livelihood depends on following the longer path. Would you still take the shorter one?

It occurred to me that Hong Kong bus drivers might be encouraged to never stop for people running after the bus. I’ve seen it happen a disproportionate amount, to the point where I would say that the majority of bus drivers do it. On more than one occasion JC or I have gone up to the glass door, knocked on it, and then watched the driver look at us before pulling away. It doesn’t make sense that there would be so many asshole bus drivers, so the only conclusion I can come to is that it’s systemic. There is something in place that causes drivers to behave like assholes, and I would venture to guess that it’s monetary. There is no better motivator (especially when it comes to Chinese people, but that’s another story).

Today at work, I overheard our team manager calling a former teammate about a job he did last year. I will be doing the same job this weekend, and the manager was asking the old teammate if he could send us the email that he used last year as a template. I asked the manager if it was really necessary to have a template for saying “hello everyone, the job is done”. He told me that it’s the established procedure, and that if we didn’t send out that email, we’d be attracting negative attention to ourselves. It’s exactly like the case with the battery: some people care more about procedure than they do results. All I could do was shake my head.

In another case, I accidentally processed an order and set it to “received” instead of “pending” while doing a training run. All it is is a switch to set it back to “pending”, but it took over a week, at least a dozen emails back and forth, and an entire new ticket before it finally switched back. I won’t be making that mistake again, but did it really have to be that hard? Nobody could make the decision to just flip the switch?

I could go on but if I did I won’t be going to sleep tonight. I’m not saying that rules and procedures are bad in and of themselves; you definitely need rules and procedures for predictability and consistency. There is also an original reason, or spirit, behind every rule or procedure. They are supposed to be a means to an end, and not the end itself. Sadly, many people in Hong Kong seem to have forgotten this little detail, focusing only on the how and not the why.

Here’s to reducing bureaucracy and procedure, and to going back to just plain old helping each other out. Good night!

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