Stupid Rules

One of the best leaders I’ve worked with is Dave Rabuano who helped turn around Owens Corning’s flagship plant in Newark, Ohio.  Dave is a people guy, but he’s no softie. He gets big results.

He began his turn-around listening to the operation’s 1,200-plus employees. He wanted to know what prevented them from being the best in Owens Corning

People said one of their biggest barriers were stupid rules—rules that made it difficult to get their jobs done and rules that communicated “we don’t trust our people.”

Dave launched a “stupid rules” team that represented the entire operation. Together they identified and eliminated stupid rules that made it difficult to become the best Owens Corning operation.

I’m convinced that the stupid rules initiative played a huge psychological and operational impact on the operation’s success.  That is, if you consider these results a success, which I do:

  • 82% reduction in accidents
  • 24% increase in sales
  • $33 million improvement in income from operations
  • 8% reduction in cost per pound
  • 14% increase in return on net assets

How many stupid rules get in your peoples’ way? How many communicate, “We don’t trust you.”
Here are some stupid rules I’ve seen or heard about that might get you started.

  • No whispering
  • Overly detailed dress codes for adults; i.e., specific hem lengths on clothing or shirt collar type.
  • Need supervisor’s permission to use the bathroom
  • Limit of three bathroom visits per day
  • Requiring a three-day notice prior to taking a sick day (seriously???)
  • No eating at your desk
  • Confiscation of frequent flyers miles from people who put up with flight delays, cramped quarters and being away from their families while doing company business.
  • Requiring people to submit funeral notices in order to take a two-day bereavement leave
    No personalization of offices or cubicles. (This means no photos of spouses or children, no plants, signs, or plaques quoting, for example, Michelangelo “I’m still learning”, Herb Kelleher “We have strategic plan. It’s called doing things.”, or Bob Dylan “All I can do is be me, whoever that is.” In other words, the projecting of individual personality onto the workplace is not allowed.)
  • Forbidding social contact among employees without permission
  • No kissing a spouse or loved one in the company parking lot
  • Attendance policies for salaried people (who many times come in early and leave late)
  • Requiring a manager’s approval to replace an ID badge
  • Requiring manager’s approval to spend more than some ridiculously small amount of money, which communicates, “We trust you with a million dollar business portfolio but not with an unplanned $100 expenditure.”

We talk about empowerment, engagement, openness and trust. We talk about giving people the information they need when they need it and then letting them loose to take themselves and their teams to unheard of heights.

Then we get scared. We doubt ourselves. And just in case we really don’t know what we’re doing, we stick a gob of trust-busting rules into the mix that suck the passion right out of everyone in sight.

Are all rules bad? Of course not. But many got there because leaders were afraid to have a conversation with an employee or group of employees so they created a rule to penalize everyone.

What could have been an exciting celebration becomes another bureaucratic entrenchment.

And you don’t get the results Dave got.


  1. I have found these types of rules to exist in organizations where managers are lacking in leadership skills. In some areas of the organization there is only managers and no leaders which is where the largest number of stupid rules exist.

    Managers using the avoidance style of managing people will most often create a stupid rule so they can avoid having a performance discussion with inidividuals.

    If they could only learn “lead the people, manage the process” Peter Drucker; Management Task and Responsibilities.

    1. Eddy, I agree with you. If you’re a weak leader it’s easier for you just to dump a rule on people rather than focus on the root cause of the problem.

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