Workplace bureaucracy in need of new thinking

--By Lionel Wijesiri--
“I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.”
- Leonardo da Vinci

Peter Drucker, known as ‘the man who invented management’, once made a statement that should cause every manager or leader to stop and ponder. The statement is: “Most of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to get their jobs done.”

I am in total agreement with Peter Drucker. The top Management spends a great deal of time and effort to set up operational procedures and in the process, neglects the most crucial issues, those that have to do with the human side of the equation— ‘the people factor’. I’ve seen quite a number of workplaces with too much paperwork, too many steps to get things done, too much reporting, too many meetings, too much planning and too much training. Each of these things is usually the management’s answer to a problem, but they add more problems, including a tendency to slow things down and get less done.
A better answer is to focus on action and eliminate as much bureaucracy as possible and get things moving. Consider, for example, the most time-consuming and dreaded of management activities: The yearly performance review. These are often so cumbersome that managers just want to ‘get it done’, so that they can devote their attention to the business itself.

“You can’t even get a burnt light bulb changed without putting in a work order,” says a sales manager known to me working in a blue-chip large company in Sri Lanka. He says that he cuts through red tape by cozying-up to colleagues and requesting favours. Otherwise, a task as simple as changing that bulb can take two weeks to accomplish.
Maybe it’s not that bad in your organisation. But just in case, let me give you a sampling of suggestions for bureaucracy-busting:

Know what you want to get done
Often bureaucracy happens when people focus on processes and forget about what the end result should be. Where are you trying to go? Find the shortest route to get there, rather than making things complicated. Visualize your desired result and keep the focus on that.

Know your priorities
Keep in mind the most important work your organisation does. Of course, if you’re going to have a meeting with a potential client in order to sign him up, that’s probably a priority. Know the important work and focus on that.

Eliminate paperwork whenever possible
How many forms does your company have? Much of that uses the same information. Can a simple computer programme be used instead, so people don’t have to fill out paperwork but can just fill in an online form where the basic information is stored and reused, so it doesn’t have to be re-entered?

Cut out processes
Are there steps and approvals and work that people have to do that can be eliminated altogether? Keep an eye out for these processes and eliminate when possible. Every time someone is doing something routine, ask whether it’s really necessary or if can be reduced or eliminated.

Empower people
Often a manager becomes a bottleneck, requiring his approval before anything can get done. Worse yet is when the approval is needed several times along the way, meaning it has to be bounced back and forth a number of times. A better solution is to give people clear instructions about how to handle things and when the approval is authorized, to allow them to handle it. Monitor things closely at first to ensure that they know how to follow the instructions and then give them more room to work independently and just report to you every now and then.

Don’t put off decisions  
When a decision is required, try to make it quickly. Make sure you have all the necessary information, know what criteria you’re using to make the decision and then make the decision immediately. The longer you wait, the worse the problems become. Indecision is the enemy of action.

Have the information you need ready
If you don’t have information, you cannot make decisions properly. Have the information sent to you beforehand, so you have everything you need to make the decision when it’s time. Figure out what information is needed for your regular decisions and have it on hand.

Keep ‘Action’ at your forefront
Put up a sign on your desk that says ‘Action’. Make this your mentality throughout the day. When you are putting something off, remind yourself to take action.

Look for action-oriented people
When selecting a team, look for people who get things done. This can be seen in their track record. Give them a trial and see if they tend to focus on actions and decision or processes and paperwork. Action-oriented people will get things done more effectively.

Reward action
Reward team members for action taken. Rewards could be as simple as praise or as big as a promotion or a bonus to the most action-oriented employees. These rewards tell your company or organisation — or yourself — that action is a top priority.

Control types
Of course, control systems in the workplace are necessary tools to monitor, forecast or diagnose performance and performance deviations. Some control systems like ‘Six Sigma’ have reportedly saved organisations millions of rupees and some safety control systems have even saved lives. There are numerous control mechanisms available to help detect any operational performance issue.  

Control strategies and mechanisms must be in place to ensure that plans stay on track and sustain good quality.
There are three broad strategies for achieving organisational control: Bureaucratic control, market control and clan control.
1. Bureaucratic control covers how management uses rules, regulations and formal authority to guide employee performances. As the organisation needs to regulate behaviour and results, this control area includes such things as budgets, statistical reports and performance appraisals.
2. Market control covers how the management uses pricing mechanisms to regulate activities in organisations. Profit and loss scenarios would form the evaluating basis for managers.
3. Clan control covers the area which the organisation’s employees may share the values, expectations and goals, thus act in accordance with them.
The top management must review the nature and culture of its workforce together the organisation’s objective to determine the best mechanism to select. It may be difficult to identify what is best but it is very important to gauge the most appropriate control strategy.

However, problems can arise when an organisation does not balance its control mechanisms with its workforce.  Too much control can cause a hostile work environment and adversely affect employee morale.  Moreover, too much control may bring about a downturn in employee productivity. This happens when the control systems begin to run the organisation rather than the other way around.   

Neglecting control in the workplace can also cause the same damaging outcomes, however, for different reasons. Focusing too much on maintaining a good work environment and not enough on control can result in an undisciplined, unmanageable workforce.  In this instance, the workforce seems to dictate what happens operationally.
In either case, an organisation has cause for concern.  Leadership’s role is to find a good balance between control and maintaining a positive work environment where both the employees and the organisation can contribute and grow.

(The writer is a corporate director with over 25 years’ senior managerial experience. He can be contacted on [email protected])

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