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Friday, December 9, 2011

Policy and the Law - word games?


The word policy is one that requires definition.  According to ISO9000:2005 (fundamentals and vocabulary) the term policy means an “overall intentions and direction of an organization as formally expressed by top management”.  Well if that's how it appears in ISO9000, that must be right. 

But I must admit that I take the definition a bit little further.  I think of policy as a statement of principle established by top management that serves as a foundation for action (processes and procedures)  implemented for meeting the requirements.  Policy exists to answer the question “why do we do that?” 

An example would to address the question “why do we do proficiency testing?” with the statement “because we have a policy that says that we monitor our performance in a variety of ways including PT to ensure that we are meeting Quality expectations” rather than “because we do” or “because I told you so”. 
(I once asked someone in my training days why we always treated all children in a specific way and receiving the answer “we do it that way because that is the way we do it”.)

As opposed to the traditional view of policy, as the apex of a triangle above process and procedure, I tend to think in reverse with policy being the roots that provide nurture and foundation throughout the Quality Tree.



Policy is a form of a top management  instruction or guidance or rule.  Taken one step further policy is a form of  law. 

I mention that because recently I have been reading an English translation of an old book by Frédéric Bastiat entitled “The Law” (Ludwig von Mises Institute, Auborn Alabama).  

Bastiat was an early French economist writing around the time of part of the French Revolution in1848.  (note: many are aware of the first French Revolution of 1789-1799, but know less about the revolutions in 1830 and  1848!)  In many respects the conditions in France of 1830 and 1848 had a lot of similarity to recent events that have led to the “Arab Spring” and the “Occupy Movement”, so reading Bastiat today is not solely of arcane interest.  Lessons may still apply.

In any event, I did a little experiment. 
I took an available electronic copy of an English translation of  “The Law” (
The Foundation for Economic  Education, Inc. Irvington-on-Hudson, New York)  and did a global search and replace changing the word “law” to “policies”.  I then scanned the product and adjusted for grammar.
The results by and large were what you might expect when you start to fiddle with words; a lot of nonsense sentences.  For example:

·        policy is the organization of the natural right of lawful defense (?)

But there were a number that had a certain resonance and relevance.  These include:

Policies cannot operate without the sanction and support of a dominating force, this force must be entrusted to those who make the policies.  (meaning policies are useful if they are understood to be by the authority of top management).

·        It ought to be stated that the purpose of policies to prevent injustice from reigning.  (meaning the reasons that we write policies is to ensure consistency and prevent certain unfairnesses.)

·        Policy is the common force organized to act as an obstacle of injustice. In short, policy is justice. (see above).

·        In this matter of education, policy has only two alternatives: It can permit this transaction of teaching-and-learning to operate freely and without the use of force, or it can force human wills in this matter… (meaning we should use policy as an educational approach for training ).

Additionally there was one that I found particularly interesting:

 “Policies … have acted in direct opposition to its own purpose”
It is not uncommon for folks to have a bad event, maybe a problem with a customer complaint or a lost sample.  In the process of remediating the problem and then starting a corrective action, there is a moment where someone decides that the laboratory needs a new policy like “samples collected on the week-end shall only be collected by an on-call technologist”.  That solved the problem until folks everywhere started seeing an easy way to have samples collected at the laboratories on-call expense.  All of a sudden the policy has created a whole new problem which would have been averted if someone had taken a moment before announcing a new policy. 

All this being said, I acknowledge that this is a bit of a “geek game” playing with words and creating new interpretations.  Not everything is a pearl.  But taken in the spirit by which it was intended, there are some grains of useable message in the exercise.




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  9. How would we approach deciding if policy is acceptable policy. All in all has it accomplished the ideal targets of the association and the necessary results. automotive benchmarks in Missouri & Kansas

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    1. Interesting question. Just because on organization writes a "policy" does not mean it is necessarily appropriate or acceptable.
      Agree your test (meeting the needs OR fit for purpose)would a good test.
      The corollary definition of a POOR policy would one that is inappropriate or one that cannot be enacted or one inconsistent with association goals or purpose (?)

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