June 24, 2024

Preoccupations: Don’t Let Bureaucracy Ruin Your Day

To really understand the bureaucrat, we need look no further than the source of the word. “Bureau” is French for desk or office and “crat” comes from the Greek word for rule. Put them together and you have rules made by someone stuck behind a desk or isolated in an office.

Most bureaucrats genuinely want to improve performance and to reduce waste and fraud. But because their departments have become separated from the actual work and the end customer, they can produce regulations that have little to do with real operating concerns. It may be hard to imagine, but you yourself could be a bureaucrat — by unknowingly enforcing rules that have outlived their usefulness.

Consider one example of work rules at variance with reality. About a decade ago, a state agency had a process for managing grants to nonprofit groups. It was meant to prevent fraud and to ensure that grant money was used for the intended purposes. Those are admirable goals, but bureaucracy ended up getting in the way of them.

When a new director took over the program, he found that the contract attending each grant ran more than 100 pages, specifying all manner of compliance requirements. As he dug into the contract, he found that a majority of its provisions were outdated or unnecessary, yet were still being enforced.

The director arranged a conference among several of the grant recipients and representatives from the contracting and compliance groups. Together, they reviewed the contract, looked at which rules were still necessary and in rather short order knocked the contract down to 20 pages of relevant language.

The same kinds of tangles can easily occur in industry, too, as well-meaning bureaucrats take something with a proven record of success and improve it into oblivion.

Many organizations have compartmentalized themselves so much that crucial functions like procurement or compliance have become their own entities, marching to their own drumbeats.

In many organizations, the procurement department takes over after engineering or product development comes up with specific performance requirements with a supplier. Sometimes, it’s good for procurement to become involved, just to ensure that unnecessary costs haven’t been included in a bid. In other cases, though, the department uses just one tool: the cost-savings hammer.

Often, the procurement staff decrees that it’s time for across-the-board savings — say, in the amount of 10 percent. In the case of buying bulk paper and the like, savings can be easily quantified. But when a commodity-based mentality is transferred to more complex products and services, bureaucrats can wind up creating more costs than they save.

Further cost reductions may be demanded each year, causing a supplier to cut corners, thus damaging the final product or service. I have seen cases where the procurement staff boasts on the front end that it has won the price war, while suppliers went out of business because they couldn’t keep up with demands to provide an ever lower price.

The simple solution for just about any bureaucratic roadblock is to assemble your teams and ask a series of questions: What are we trying to accomplish here? Why does it matter? How does our current process help our goals? How does it hinder them?

If you add your customers and your suppliers to the inquiry, you may discover all kinds of ways to eliminate wasteful, inefficient work requirements.

By starting a review process that focuses on those questions, you stand a good chance of finding roadblocks before they take on a life of their own. By adding a simple “start-stop-continue” assessment, you may find a way to keep your rules and processes relevant: What do we need to start doing? Based on what we are learning, what do we need to stop doing? What do we need to keep doing?

AS you go through your review, you are also quite likely to notice which processes or procedures need adjustment. When in doubt, ask those on the front lines what’s in their way: Is there anything that no longer seems to make sense?

If you’re really feeling courageous, try asking your customers or suppliers what hurdles you’ve put in their path. What makes you difficult to do business with? Beyond conducting just another customer satisfaction survey, you may risk actually discovering what matters. Just be careful that you don’t wind up creating another bureaucracy in the process. 

Russell Bishop, an educational psychologist, is the author of “Workarounds That Work.” E-mail: preoccupations@nytimes.com.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=9641ffdcce74bd2af811b5ce22a6bc39

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