Choices

Standards
Lobster

Lobsters have standards, too, and they started a long time ago. Before the Europeans came or the Italians working for the Spanish or even the Norsemen sailed our northeast coast, lobsters had standards.

That is, the Algonquin Indians had standards for lobsters. They captured lobsters using bent-wood traps – some about the size of a Volkswagen – which were designed to allow smaller, younger lobsters to escape through the slats. They had unofficial standards for how big a lobster had to be before he was tossed into the cooking pot or back into the ocean.

To this day, the citizens of Maine, through their local regulatory agencies, continue to set standards for lobster fishing. The fishermen use a small metal device tied by a short rope to their wrists. This blade-like caliper measures the length of the large plate on the back of the lobster. If the blade fits over the plate on the lobster’s back, it goes back in the water. This is the best kind of standard. It’s hard, fixed and constant. To paraphrase Popeye, it is what it is and it ain’t no more.

Another type of standard is the small, almost flat, round disk about the size of a half-dollar with a half circle cut out of its side. The negative shape created by the “bite” is exactly the acceptable shape for the end of a cue stick, which is what it’s used to dictate.

The town Gaithersburg, Maryland, is the location and safehouse for the United States Department of Standards, Weights and Measures. In that building is a device, token or rule that is the precise weight, length or volume for every element of official measurement used in our country except time, which is handled someplace in Connecticut.

There are other places where standards are measured. Some are electronically matched to the precise weight of particular ingredients to create specific therapeutic drugs. Some combinations of components or ingredients are so detailed as to warrant a patent. Others, no less precise and no less strict, guide the production of a soft drink or the seven herbs and spices for a particular brand of fried chicken.

To a degree, standards like these contain a certain amount of interpretation. To promote consistency, the human factor has been slowly removed from the judging process. It is important to note that in these previous examples, quality is not an element of evaluation. Only specific components of performance are evaluated. It has been assumed that if the standards are met, then the quality is in the product. This is not necessarily so.

There are also situations in which standards are evaluated on a sliding scale. In these cases, there are written rules of acceptable and unacceptable levels of performance. For example, what is artistic and what is athletic has always challenged the figure skater. The platform diver is constantly adjusting to the changing tastes of judges from competition to competition, and baseball’s strike zone has as much expansion and contraction as the scale at a Weight Watchers meeting.

The next position on our sliding scale of standards from rock hard to noodle wet is our own judicial system. In most cases, laws are written to control what not to do rather than what should be done. In that case, unacceptable behavior is punished and acceptable behavior is irrelevant. The most mercurial aspect of the law is that the determination of the eventual punishment is always negotiable. And seemingly, the more visible the defendant, the more generous and conciliatory the system.

Establishing and adhering to prescribed standards touches us in every aspect of our lives because these standards help to define a course of conduct in a world that we share with others. The solid yellow line dividing a two lane road is as much a ten foot wall of agreement as so much paint. The courtesies shown children and seniors are more an acknowledgment of future or past contributions to our society than an acceptance of their physical limitations. Whether you adhere to the golden rule or the survival of the fittest, your everyday conduct and behavior is driven by your own code, your own set of standards. Adherence to these standards may vary from situation to situation over the years, but they are how you choose to live.

Just like people, corporations and businesses, even individual products, have a code of performance that defines what they value, what they find unacceptable and the character traits that best articulate their qualities.

The best and most successful corporations in the world spend a lot of time and money defining their standards and communicating them to their employees, suppliers and customers. By doing this, they hope to establish an attitude that reflects the values that guide their organizations.

When their people need to make a critical decision about quality, performance, or just what the right thing to do is, they have a history of shared experiences to demonstrate how they should act for the long-term benefit of the company. In some cases, their actions may be to concede a short-term loss for a long-term gain. An organization begins to develop character when employees accept responsibility for corporate standards as their own.

This kind of shared responsibility for the success of your organization is both cumulative and perpetual, as long as there is an initial commitment to define your company’s standards, communicate them and acknowledge their implementation.

This is not the latest management trend. These activities are not touted in the next wave of business seminars. It is a simple act of courtesy toward your employees. Don’t assume they know what you want. Think of them as a group of individuals willing to work with you and each other for their own interests as well as those of the company.

Like the Algonquin Indians of Maine, the reason to establish standards for not taking lobsters that are too young and small is so that there will be bigger and more plentiful lobsters in the future for everyone to eat.

We must give them time to grow and multiply. A corporation that defines and rewards the successful implementation of its collective standards of performance will benefit from the ideas generated by motivated and focused employees.

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