It may be old-age or being locked down by Covid-19, but I’m feeling rather grumpy. As soon as I had finished my previous blog on the dangers of so-called ‘best practice’, I heard myself saying “and another thing!”. So here are my thoughts on something else that irritates/worries me.

Everybody hates bureaucracy. There are endless dismissive quotes:

  • “Bureaucracy is a giant mechanism operated by pygmies” – Honoré de Balzac
  • “Bureaucracy is the death of any achievement” – Albert Einstein
  • “The US has government of the people, by the bureaucrats, for the bureaucrats” – Milton Friedman.

Bureaucracy seems to mean anything that gets in my way. Any process or procedure which is even mildly inconvenient. We hear that bureaucracy:

  • Crushes innovation, creativity, and independence of thought.
  • Slows down decision-making.
  • Wastes time and money.
  • Creates rigidity where you need flexibility.
  • Takes power away from the individual and gives it to an impersonal system.
  • Strangles initiative in layers of red tape.

Nobody has a good word to say for bureaucracy. Gary Hamel, a leader in management thinking, even wrote a piece called “Bureaucracy Must Die”.

But where does bureaucracy come from?

Well, I want to say something about the positive benefits of bureaucracy!

At heart, the practice of bureaucracy is about codifying and standardising processes and procedures. It helps us to go faster without making mistakes. It enables us to compare what is happening at different times and in different places. It helps us transfer the knowledge of how to carry out a specific task from one person to another quickly and efficiently.

If I go into hospital for a procedure, a lot of bureaucracy is involved. Among other things, a checklist to make sure that the right operation is being carried out on the right bit of the right patient. Those checklists exist because experience has shown that fallible humans can make mistakes. And if it is me on the operating table, I am profoundly grateful that past experience has been converted into a stable process.

The same is true of the checklist used by aircrew before a plane takes off.

Sumerian tablet recording beer rations

Codified procedures and processes played a key role in developing civilisations. Some of the earliest writing is Sumerian, dating from around 3000 BCE. A lot of what they wrote down was about taxes and trade. Being able to record and manage a surplus harvest released human effort for other specialised activities, contributing to innovation and expanding human thought. Writing enabled ancient civilisations to capture and share information on astronomy, mathematics, war and society. They were able to administer empires and develop long range trade and sophisticated financial structures.

Modern society is impossible without laws and standardised procedures. It would be a massive waste of resources if everybody started from scratch for every task. Yes, it would maximise individual creativity and innovation, but twith be serious costs.

When I’m cooking a new dish, I find a recipe real benefit. It tells me what to do, how to do it and when to do it. After a few times, I might tweak the recipe to suit my preferences, but if I am wise, I will note the changes to the original. If I don’t, at some point I will get cocky and try to cook entirely without the recipe. I usually then forget some critical ingredient, process or timing and end up with a dish that is a lot less than I hoped for.

In “Thinking Fast and Slow”, Daniel Kahneman talks about how we make decisions, particularly at speed and under pressure. Heuristics are the mental models and shortcuts we use to make most of our decisions. They prevent us collapsing under the weight of options and information. When faced with the new problem we call on memory and look for similar situations to see whether we can use a similar solution. The point about heuristics is that they are usually quick and mostly right. However, they can lead us astray. A codified process helps us access the heuristic experience of others and encourages us to make checks on the major sources of error.

As a simple example, think about filing a tax return. In the UK, I must do that every year, but only once a year. It is not something where all the details at the front of my mind. It is complex and changes as the law changes. Within living memory, it was such an awful process that it was worth hiring a professional to do it for you. Now it is online. The website asks you questions to work out what category you are in and then prompts you for the information it needs to work out your tax liability. Its internal model cuts out most of the questions irrelevant to your situation. Internal checks make sure you are filing all the information required, and that the information is consistent.

It is still not a joyful process. There is still cursing as you scrabble around in the shoebox that passes for your financial records system for some piece of paper. But this is what I want from bureaucracy. Taking an unfortunate and complex situation and making it painless and fast for me.

When bureaucracy goes bad

“These bureaucratic processes are like a reverse pearl. Instead of a tiny piece of grit covered by beautiful glistening layers of calcium carbonate, you get the tiny pearl of a useful process covered by layers of crud.”

Having made the case for bureaucracy, I must acknowledge that it can go badly wrong. Human behaviour causes most of the problems. For example:

Process history – Anyone involved in process mapping will know that you find redundant and irrelevant steps in any process that has been around for a while. Things that were included for a good reason, but never removed when the situation changed. My favourite example is a chemical company that made a particular product in a batch reactor. They added half of one ingredient at the start of the process, and the other half at a precise point in time later. This extra bit of complexity was causing all kinds of logistics problems, but no one could remember why that was the process. Eventually, we found the answer deep in the company archives. When the process was first developed, a couple of decades previously, the factory only had a small reaction vessel available. The reaction tended to bubble and foam, causing a messy overflow. By adding the reactant in batches, they could solve the problem. The original reaction vessel was scrapped years ago and replaced with a much larger one, but since no one remembered the original workaround, the recipe never got changed.

Process accretion – In complex situations, such as tax and procurement law, people keep finding loopholes that need to be closed, or exceptions that must be handled. The usual solution is to slap a patch onto the existing process as a quick fix. Over time, the process can become so overwrought that it fractures. These bureaucratic processes are like a reverse pearl. Instead of a tiny piece of grit covered by beautiful glistening layers of calcium carbonate, you get the tiny pearl of a useful process covered by layers of crud.

Bureaucracy used as a defence – The lazy, fearful and incompetent often use bureaucratic processes as a defence. “Don’t complain to me, it’s the system”.

Poor exception handling – In my experience working in the corporate world and with government agencies, if a process is blocking an action, there is a process owner you can discuss it with. I have been amazed and delighted by how often I have been able to find a way round a bureaucratic blockage, just by talking to the relevant process experts. Once they have grasped what you are trying to do, and agreed that it is ‘legal, truthful and honest’, there is often an exception precedent or an alternative process. Unfortunately, I have not had the same positive experience dealing with utilities and telecoms providers. There is often no practical way to escalate a problem, and both you and the customer service agent are frustrated by the limitations of their script.

Applying a standard process in the wrong place – It is sensible to reuse proven procedures where possible. It saves time and energy. However, you need to check that the process you plan to use covers the specific risks and challenges of your problem. A spreadsheet designed to calculate the ROI of investing in a new piece of manufacturing kit, will not let you work out the potential ROI of a strategic entry into a new market. And yet I have seen this done. In one case you understand the risks, costs and benefits, in the other it is a series of intelligent guesses.

Used wisely, bureaucracy is a boon

  • Bureaucracy helps us go faster with fewer errors, by codifying knowledge and expertise.
  • Use checklists, standard processes, and business rules wherever you can.
  • There are assumptions built into every process that create a safe space where it works most of the time. Be very wary of using a process outside the known areas of validity.
  • Document your processes. I know it is boring, but you or those who follow will forget why you made the choices you did. I have seen so many people trapped by a process they don’t understand and are too scared to change.
  • Watch out for the gradual inclusion of new exceptions and special rules. Accretion kills valuable processes.
  • Don’t use bureaucracy defensively. If you or your colleagues are using the ‘rules’ to avoid hard decisions or divert blame, your co-workers, suppliers and customers will hate you.
You Hate Bureaucracy, But What is Your Alternative?
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