Wrestling with regulation

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Rules fail because you cannot write a rule to contain every possible behavior in the vast spectrum of human behavior.” –Dov Seidman, from his book How: Why How We Do Anything Means Everything … in Business and in Life

Ah, the love/hate relationship between trucking and the rules governing all facets of its operations. No single subject within this industry, in my humble estimation, creates a more cantankerous climate for debate than regulation.

Oh, but the irony any such discussion unearths!

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Drivers and managers alike will bristle with indignation at the intrusiveness of trucking’s rules, the burden they create in terms of record keeping and cost, yet turn on a dime and point furious fingers at those that don’t follow them.

For non-compliance is the dirty secret in trucking – allowing shirkers to unfairly lower their rates and win business, even as they put themselves and others at risk while simultaneously blackening reputation of the entire industry.

So, how does trucking reconcile the burdens and benefits of regulations? For this industry needs them even as it detests them.

I got some insight into this most thorniest of questions after thumbing through a business book by Dov Seidman entitled How: Why How We Do Anything Means Everything … in Business and in Life.

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Yes, yes, I know – the mere title suggests someone dressed up as the Dali Llama dispensing pearls of vague so-called wisdom that’s almost impossible to use in the rough-and-tumble world of trucking.

Except that Seidman’s analysis of what’s right – and so utterly wrong – about the rules governing the business world these days hits the mark, in my estimation; even with the specific section headline, “The Limitations of Rules.”

“To pursue our endeavors and achieve our desired success, we need certainty, consistency, and predictability – a ‘hard floor’ from which to take a leap,” he explained. “Basketball players can jump higher than beach volleyball players because they play on a hard wooden floor – for it is much more difficult to leap high with the sand shifting beneath your feet.”

[To get a flavor for Seidman’s approach, here’s a clip of him speaking in Minneapolis not too long ago.]

To Seidman, regulations provide that “hard wooden floor” in business and in life. “In democratic societies, we look to rules – in the form of laws – to provide the certainty, consistency, and predictability we require,” he explained. However, in business, “we began to sense that the rules were letting us down.”

There are good reasons for this let down, Seidman stressed. “For one, the way we write rules often makes them inefficient when governing human conduct,” he noted. “Rules, of course, don’t come out of thin air. Legislations and organizations adopt them usually to proscribe unwanted behaviors, but typically in reaction to events.”

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For example, localities lower speed limits after too many accidents, he said, or new rules governing pit bulls are formulated after a series of attacks.

“Such rules are established for a reason, but most people are out of touch with the rational and spirit of why,” Seidman noted. “They don’t read legislative histories and so have a thin, superficial relationship to the rules. [Also] rules fail because you cannot write a rule to contain every possible behavior in the vast spectrum of human conduct. There will always be gray areas, and therefore – given the right circumstances, opportunities, or outside pressures – some people might be motivated to circumvent them.”

When people DO break the rules or exploit loopholes, he pointed out, the typical response is … to just make more rules. “Rules, then, become part of the problem,” Seidman stressed.

Covering the basics is what rules are really geared for, he explained. “Companies have rules that tell people when to come to work, because absent those rules. People would come to work whenever they felt like it and it would be harder to get things done,” Seidman said.

“Rules achieve good floors, minimum standards of behavior, and prevent bad things from happening – if people follow them. But people transgress, so we write rules to prevent further transgression. Yet rules are inherently limited, so people find a way to transgress again,” he pointed out. “People who feel overregulated, in turn, feel distrusted and they lose fealty to the rules and those who make them, searching for ways to avoid their yoke.”

This then creates a downward spiral of rulemaking which causes lasting detriment to the trust we need to sustain society, he warned.

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“There is just something in the nature of rules and laws that reduces their effectiveness in certain realms of human behavior,” Seidman said. “How do you legislate fairness? What enforceable language can we use to enshrine into law a powerful value like that? You can – and we do – write long lists proscribing a number of behaviors you think are unfair, but it’s impossible to write them all without creating hopeless contradictions, inequities, and loopholes.”

More importantly, rules DON’T cover some of the critical hallmarks of good business. “How do you write a contract that obligates you to delight a customer? To exceed expectations or even surprise customers? You can’t,” he noted. “You can set optimum schedules and basic compensation, but you can’t construct language that will mandate that extra measure of performance that builds long-term, successful relationships. So by setting floors for behavior, rules also unintentionally set ceilings.”

This, then, is the complex problem at the heart of trucking’s – indeed, almost every industry’s – relationship to the rules governing its operations. Solving it will be tricky and require some very thoughtful thinking.

What's Trucks at Work?

Trucks at Work: Sean Kilcarr comments on trends affecting the many different strata of the trucking industry.

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