Join the VPS or ship out (first appeared in InfoWorld)

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In late 1997, the U.S.S. Benfold was stationed in the Persian Gulf, one of the destroyers responsible for inspecting all ships entering and leaving Iraq. An average ship inspection required five hours.

The Benfold performed its inspections in half that time. How? A junior petty officer, Fire Controlman Derrick Thomas, built a PC database that automatically filled out the boarding paperwork — a 100-item questionnaire, for which most responses didn’t and couldn’t change for any given ship undergoing inspection.

Pull out your IT policies and procedures manual and ask yourself whether you would have allowed Fire Controlman Thomas to build his database in your company. If so, you’re one of the enlightened ones. Many corporate IT departments, led by charter members of the Value Prevention Society (VPS), ‘prohibit end-users from making use of a personal database such as Microsoft Access.

Captain D. Michael Abrashoff chronicles his 20 months of command aboard the Benfold in It’s Your Ship, an easy and worthwhile read. It’s Your Ship explains how Abrashoff took the Benfold from being one of the worst ships in the U.S. Navy to one of the highest rated, improving not by increments but by large multiples in a wide variety of critical measures.

The clear centerpiece of Abrashoff’s leadership style is that he treated the officers and sailors under his command as adults. “It’s your ship,” he told them. He insisted they treat it as such, and more importantly allowed them to. If a sailor had a worthwhile idea on how to make the Benfold operate better, he or she had the authority to try it, always with Abrashoff’s backing, and usually without requiring his permission. That’s what empowerment means, or is supposed to: Treat employees as adults.

When you treat employees as adults, you create an environment in which they can succeed, and give them the opportunity to do so. You treat them as independent decision-makers. You delegate goals rather than tasks, provide guidelines rather than policies, make sure they have the information they need to make good decisions, and let them do their jobs.

VPS members do the opposite — they treat employees as children. They do their best to prevent employees from failing by creating as restrictive an environment as possible, the way parents childproof their homes to prevent their two-year-olds from hurting themselves and breaking the furniture — the toddler equivalent of PC lockdowns.

Because isn’t that what VPS policies are for — preventing employees from hurting themselves and the furniture?