Saturday, January 2, 2010

The Perils of Bureaucracy

Clipboard-ism is funny when I write about it here in this blog. At a mundane every day level, it's funny. Taken on a time-lapse at a broader level, it is not funny. The purpose of the average clipboard person is to avoid creating conflict, keep their jobs and side step tough decisions. But this desire doesn't really create lasting stability; rather it creates periods of massive upheaval because in our transparency-obsessed society, every for-profit and governmental agency is put to scrutiny.

In a for-profit company, bureaucracy doesn't do much more than harm the company, its employees and shareholders. It can have a decently bad effect, like GM ignoring for 15 years that people like me were only considering Hondas. Why did we buy Hondas? Resale value, gas mileage, low maintenance. Things that mattered to most consumers who don't care that much about cars. Things that were unfathomable to an exec at a company obsessed with car ownership, in a city and a state obsessed with that too. Strategy and execution. You gotta have both as they say; and in GM's case I'm afraid there was neither.

In a governmental agency though, bureaucracy can be dangerous. Look at the situation of the Nigerian Christmas-Day bomber. He fell through the cracks because the various and sundry clipboard people whom he met with couldn't conceive of acting off-script. They didn't do anything that would make waves or get them in trouble or have to do anything. Rather, they did what they considered a safe and prudent action and put him on a terrorist watch list. Now the CEO of Delta is complaining that his bureaucracy did everything he was told to do by the government and was still not protected and it was the government's fault. There is a strategy here: prevent terrorist attacks. But there is limited execution.

It strikes me that the two biggest correctional actions are:

1) The goal is not to document everything to a T and do everything by the book. That's what most organizations are designed to do, because that what gives us efficiency and predictability. But the end goal is not the documentation in and of itself, it is to find the information which truly matters and act upon it. That simple step - identifying that there is something here that is action-worthy, is actually hard. The problem with bureaucracy is that first, many do not realize that THEY are the ones that need to take action and second, that even if they do, the social order often prevents them from doing so. People are too often trained to be paper pushers, unaware of the consequences that their actions will have on people's actual health and lives, on the economy and on lives. More time needs to be spent training any person, no matter how big or small, on how much their individual actions impact the greater whole.

2) Creating an internal group of diverse and highly-trained people who are able to diagnose the tougher issues and make quick recommendations of what needs to be done next. It's unfortunate because this group is supposed to be called "management" but because of company politics, wall street and transparency the people actually in management may not be the best to be making these unbiased decisions. To be honest the people in management are often so beset by the administrative details of their jobs, that they are often better off kept away from this level of detail. It's tempting to pull for consultants, but I don't think that's a good idea because it breeds a sense of "outsourcing one's thinking". I also don't think internal competition (deliberately overlapping groups) is a good idea, because the politics it produces destroys productivity and greatly outweighs any improvement in quality due to the competition. Last there's the possibility of creating an internal audit staff, which while necessary, by nature is designed to be backward looking and staffed with people not known for creative flair or forward thinking required.

So there you have it, that's my answer to this particularly perilous problem.

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