3 ways to combat bureaucracy’s deceptive simplicity

bureaucracy

Sometimes bureaucracy’s simple rules become straitjackets to our common sense. But we don’t need to trash bureaucracy completely. We need to supplement bureaucracy’s simplicity with additional systems that bring greater balance, responsiveness, and flexibility to match ever-changing marketplace requirements, writes Dave Hanna. 

Picture yourself as a business owner back in the earliest days of the industrial revolution.  Your biggest dilemma would be how to mould a workforce coming from farms and small family businesses into an organisation of hundreds of workers operating machinery. You might seek advice from military officers; few others in that day had ever managed hundreds of people. Here is the wisdom you would have gleaned from these experts:

  1. Break down these new automated processes into the smallest possible tasks that an average worker can handle.
  2. Standardise tasks so they are performed the same way every time.
  3. Develop a “unity of command” – limit decision authority to a few “officers.”
  4. Codify a set of uniform policies to give direction on daily issues.
  5. Avoid duplication of effort; each task should be assigned to only one person.
  6. Pay people for their time on the job.

This was a recipe for simple, clean, predictable, and orderly work. And the recipe initially delivered great results. One notable champion of these rules was Henry Ford, creator of the first assembly line. In the early days, Ford turned out one Model T automobile every 13 hours. Once the assembly line swung into high gear, one Model T was delivered every 90 seconds.

It was a great success story that has been repeated the world over. Indeed, the organisational recipe, now recognised by the label “bureaucracy,” remains the most common organisational template in today’s world. It offers simplicity with clear division of labour, clear lines of authority, and clear accountabilities.

Don’t think of leadership simply as a hierarchy. Instead, “disperse” leadership by assigning leadership roles to those who have demonstrated good people skills and who have the right knowledge and experience to solve problems at their source.

But bureaucracy’s simplicity has become deceptive as the world has changed in the past few centuries. Work today often is not neat, orderly and predictable. Unforeseen developments are all too common. The “unforeseen” has exposed bureaucracy’s flaws, such as:

  • With each one having only one small, simple task, some workers have been hesitant (or unable) to collaborate with others when problems arise.
  • Leaders have been charged to decide matters from which they often are distanced and relatively inexperienced.
  • Standardised job procedures and official policies have led people to get comfortable with routines rather than to look for ways to improve; to do only what’s expected, not always what’s appropriate. A policy is a decision made in advance; today there are countless situations that require a more thoughtful analysis.
  • People are reluctant to do anything outside their normal work hours or job description unless there is extra compensation.
  • Many people today have the education and personal career ambitions to do something more than simple, routine tasks.

When all of these elements collide, the system can short-change its customers. A couple of examples:

  • When Mary got an unexpected low grade on her university exam, she went to her professor to discuss the matter. “Your teaching assistant didn’t give me credit for these answers,” Mary told the professor, “But I’m sure they are correct.” The professor studied the answers for a moment and then replied, “You’re right. There’s nothing wrong with these answers.” Then the professor added, “But, I have a long-standing policy of never overriding my graduate assistants. I can’t change your grade.”
  • A 15-year-old boy bleeding from a gunshot wound just steps away from a hospital could not be rescued by emergency room personnel because rules required that ambulances bring in patients. After waiting more than 20 minutes, police officers finally carried the boy into the hospital, but he died a short time later. Witnesses said hospital emergency workers refused to come to the boy’s aid despite pleas, quoting hospital rules.

Sometimes bureaucracy’s simple rules become straitjackets to our common sense. But we don’t need to trash bureaucracy completely. We need to supplement bureaucracy’s simplicity with additional systems that bring greater balance, responsiveness, and flexibility to match ever-changing marketplace requirements.

Bureaucracy’s simplicity has become deceptive as the world has changed in the past few centuries. Work today often is not neat, orderly and predictable

Adding Value to Bureaucracy
Here are some organisation design tools and approaches that have helped many corporations better meet today’s needs:

1. Refocus everyone’s attention on the ends, not the means. Because bureaucracy was shaped to optimise the work organisation, its rules too often meet the needs of individual associates better than the needs of their stakeholders. Such myopia is neatly summarised in this poem:

As you ramble on through life,

Friend, whatever be your goal,

Keep your eye upon the doughnut,

And not upon the hole.

In other words, ensure everyone defines “doing a good job” not simply as completing their own tasks, but in meeting the needs of their stakeholders (especially customers)

2. Supplement clear division of labour with clear collaborative processes and structures: bureaucracy is designed to break down everything into small pieces. Supplement this focus by designing clear processes or structures for collaboration and teamwork when they are needed. Some options for doing this:

  • Train all associates to develop multiple skills over time.
  • Organise individuals into teams when they contribute to the same final result. In such cases:
    • Develop common goals, priorities, and rewards criteria.
    • Design cross-functional processes and structures to align different functions.
  • Transform transactions with key stakeholders into true partnerships.

3. Rethink your concept of leadership. Don’t think of leadership simply as a hierarchy. Instead, “disperse” leadership by assigning leadership roles to those who have demonstrated good people skills and who have the right knowledge and experience to solve problems at their source. Many corporations are finding that a cadre of such leaders at many levels provides the skills and flexibility required to match marketplace dynamics.

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