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When is a Door Not a Door? … The Basic Ideas of Business Rules

One of the interesting things about consulting with different organizations on business rules and publishing a Journal on that subject (the Business Rules Journal on BRCommunity.com) is that a lot of really silly rules cross my desk. Sometimes it feels like a Dilbert parade! We’ve even started a LinkedIn group about them – Rules Say Must Not.  A colleague recently forwarded a rule that raises some interesting questions. He observes that in his apartment building the doors to the stairwells all have signs on them saying, Door must be kept closed at all times. His question was, “Is a door you must never open really a door?” If the rule is followed religiously, he observed, the door might as well be considered part of the wall. Well obviously not quite! Before addressing that tongue-in-cheek question, let’s do some analysis of this rule. I think we can safely assume that the rule as stated is actually a shorthand. A more complete and accurate version might be, You may use this door for entry, but it must be closed behind you. If we wanted to be very complete, we might explain the basic motivation for the rule by adding, Fire Door. Further analysis of this simple rule reveals the basic ideas of business rules: 
  • The rule was posted; that is, written down. Why? The answer lies in the motivation for the rule – its purpose is to protect the inhabitants against the dangers of fire. When a rule becomes important enough, it is always written down.
  • The rule was written in plain English. If the rule were difficult to understand, or encoded in such way that many of the inhabitants could not readily interpret it, it would not serve its purpose very well. A rule important enough to write down is worth writing down plainly.
  • A process or procedure for this situation is not really needed. We could write one, of course, but in this case, it would probably be trivial (approach door; grasp doorknob with hand; twist doorknob is clockwise direction; pull/push carefully …). Nonetheless, the rule is still crucial. Rules can exist independent of processes.
  • This rule – like all rules – serves to shape behavior. The posting of the rule reminds inhabitants, staff and others to close the door, and presumably they are therefore less likely to forget, or perhaps even block the door open. The purpose of a rule is always to guide or influence behavior in desired ways.
  • The rule serves a purpose – it is neither frivolous nor arbitrary. Fire is a deadly risk, and all reasonable measures must be taken to protect against it. Business rules never arise in a vacuum; there are always by identifiable and important business factors motivating them.
  • The rule was posted right where the action is – that is, where actual entry can occur. This proximity to the action helps ensure the rule is followed as events actually unfold. The best way to ensure rules are followed is to get them right in front of people at the exact point where the guidance is relevant.
  • The rule is undoubtedly part of a larger body of fire code rules for buildings. Even though the rule may be posted thousands of times for enforcement purposes, these postings arise from a single source. This ensures consistency. If rules are important enough to be enforced, they are important enough to be single-sourced.  
  • The body of fire-code regulations was undoubtedly produced by experts experienced in the field, and is backed by the political authority of the city or state. Changes must be reviewed, incorporated, and disseminated carefully. Because new dangers and liabilities can be discovered at any time, this process should be streamlined and efficient. In other words, the rules must be managed.
These commonsense observations represent the basic ideas of business rules. Your business has many hundreds or thousands of such rules guiding its operational business activity. Yet in practice, these basic business rule principles are seldom followed. Can you do anything about it? Yes! The business rules approach offers proven solutions. Now back to that question, “Is a door you must never open really a door?” The answer is obvious – yes, of course it is. A wall without a door will always just be a wall. If you need a door sometime in the future, you must remodel, and that means time and money (not to mention disruption for the inhabitants). If you have ever remodeled your home, you know exactly what I mean. The wall with a door acts like a wall until such time that the must-remain-closed rule is discontinued. Then, with relatively little delay, expense or disruption, it becomes a functional door. Think of business rules as a relatively inexpensive way to build potential doors for your business in all those many cases they might one day be needed. That way you can avoid walling yourself in. In a world of constant and accelerating change, business agility is the name of the game!

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Ronald G. Ross

Ronald G. Ross

Ron Ross, Principal and Co-Founder of Business Rules Solutions, LLC, is internationally acknowledged as the “father of business rules.” Recognizing early on the importance of independently managed business rules for business operations and architecture, he has pioneered innovative techniques and standards since the mid-1980s. He wrote the industry’s first book on business rules in 1994.

Comments (2)

  • Roger Tregear


    Hi Ron. I agree, of course, that “Rules can exist independent of processes”. I’d prefer though to say that “Rules can exist independent of process models”. This is not just me being pedantic, it’s an important concept. Processes, or you might remind me they are ‘business’ processes, are there and actively delivering value to customers whether we have modelled them or not. The managed processes will be doing it more efficiently and effectively. Someone said to me recently “We don’t have processes here”. Well, yes you do. It’s the only way value is exchanged.

    • Ronald G. Ross

      Ronald G. Ross


      @Roger, Indeed there’s always a process, modeled or not.

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