Obliterate Bureaucracy to Speed Up Improvements by 20 Times

LIKE RUNNING WHILE WEARING COMBAT BOOTS: Bureaucracy-Officialism, Red Tape, and Proliferation

Organizations usually see themselves as smoothly coordinated operations, even when they are not. A baseball analogy can help us see the point. Early in the 20th century, the Chicago Cubs team members Joe Tinkers, Johnny Evers, and Frank Chance were baseball’s most celebrated double-play combination. Joe Tinkers would scoop up the ball at shortstop and wing it to Evers covering second base. Evers would touch the bag or tag the runner sliding towards him, then snap the ball to Frank Chance on first before the batter arrived at the bag. “Tinkers to Evers to Chance” became part of American folk idiom.

I Like Company

Most organizations start off in Tinkers to Evers to Chance mode. But soon, more jobs are added to perform the same amount of work. It’s like having all nine baseball players handle the baseball after it’s hit. Runners will be safe at second and first when that happens.

Why does this needless proliferation happen? Managers enjoy the prestige of having more people reporting to them. Insecure managers will use the bloated staff to cross-check for errors so that the manager looks good in the monthly reports. Also, compensation usually reflects the size of the reporting staff. Building a bureaucracy is just another way for managers to reward themselves at the expense of the organization and its stakeholders. Of course, incompetent managers will also foolishly hire more people when tasks are left uncompleted due to illness or temporary spikes in demand. But adding excess people to a process is often about as helpful as having a marathon runner wear combat boots.

Hands Off!

Many people in bureaucracies find job security in “owning” a piece of an important process. Let’s say that this person has to check incoming orders for errors. Well, all organizations depend on incoming orders. Grab a piece of that process, and you’ll be one of the last to see your job eliminated. Yet most of these order processes can be automated. Customers can place orders that are immediately sent to shipping. Error-checking programs can prompt customers to make corrections before the order is finalized.

If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again

Left unchecked, bureaucracies create redundancies that double or triple the workload … and still fail. In part, failure results because eliminating the last scintilla of errors may cost as much as eliminating the first 99.9 percent of errors. More likely, however, is that the bureaucracy is built up to make the bureaucrats feel safer. New process designs rarely reflect sophisticated knowledge of error-reduction methods. Rather, the designs allow senior bureaucrats to assign blame for errors to others.


Standing Room Only

At times, unorthodox methods are needed to help workers break out of their bad habits. A venture capitalist noticed that his colleagues were happy to sit at their desks drinking coffee and filling out administrative reports. But money in venture capital comes from working with entrepreneurs. The venture capitalist’s solution: Buy stand-up desks. None of his colleagues were psychologically or physically able to stand at those desks all day. Usually, they headed for the field by mid-morning to round up prospective investments and investors or to improve current investments.

I Love the Sound of Feet Leaving the Meeting

In the early 1990s, Sears hired the former chief of logistics for the U.S. military effort following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, William G. Pagonis. He quickly halved the time it took to ship apparel from suppliers to Sears’ stores. Suppliers who missed deadlines were fined.

Another improvement focused on cutting back on time executives spent in meetings. In a simple expedient (reminiscent of those stand-up desks), Pagonis removed the chairs from meeting rooms. Those in attendance got to the point quickly or shut up entirely. His meetings rarely exceeded 15 minutes. In the past, managers felt that they had to speak up to earn their keep. Now they knew better and stopped wasting valuable time.


Spot Checking

A high percentage of bureaucracy involves having checkers checking on checkers, a direction usually chosen for the laudatory purpose of effectively controlling the organization. Spot checking works almost as well and is a lot less expensive. To spot check correctly, ask a statistician to help you design a process to spot check. Rarely will you need to check more than a couple of thousand incidents, even if you want to get a handle on millions of occasions.

Streamline Processes

In lengthy processes, orders and offerings sit around 99 percent of the time waiting for people to do the next little bit. If you reduce how many people are involved, the process duration dramatically shortens. Cross-train people to do all of the tasks that are needed at each important stage, and you may take weeks out of the process.

Map out how long each part of the process lasts now and who does what. Alongside that lengthy list, lay out a way to reduce the steps, shorten elapsed time, and limit the number of people involved. If your organization is like most, you can probably create a 96 percent reduction in elapsed time during the process.

Today, the elapsed time standard for processes is very short … often as little as a few minutes. In industries where parts suppliers provide the goods to their manufacturing customers “just in time” (just before the part is used), suppliers usually determine what and how to ship to the customer rather than waiting for an order. Billing and payment are usually tied to scanning incoming packages.

Go for Massive Continuous Improvement of Your Most Important Tasks

For decades the mantra of many management experts has been “continuous improvement.” But those experts were usually thinking about making 1 percent improvements. We recommend instead that you continuously seek 2,000 percent solutions. You’ll run rings about the usual continuous improvement people. The more frequently you set goals and the higher those goals are, the more you’ll learn and achieve. Get going at getting better at your most important tasks!

Here are questions to help you succeed with massive continuous improvement:

1. What should you be measuring?

2. How can you measure those areas?

3. How often should improvement goals be set?

Now, get on with eliminating bureaucracy . . . even if the source is your own irrational connection to approving every detail personally!

Copyright 2007 Donald W. Mitchell, All Rights Reserved