Most of us would like to limit organisational bureaucracy, but we often find that dealing with its scourge is easier said than done. By ‘bureaucracy’, I mean activity that is of little inherent value to customers or core stakeholders. It is often the type of activity associated with delay, duplication, frustration, pedantry, and obfuscation. It is costly, not just in monetary impact, but also in terms of its ability to sap an organisation of its vitality. Clearly it does not have a lot to commend it, but why is it so tough to eliminate those pesky bureaucratic processes?

Well, the answer lies partly in how and why an organisation cultivates bureaucratic procedures in the first place. Typically, bureaucracy initially develops as a form of risk control. Extra checks, information requests, validations, and signoffs act as ways of reducing error. Where errors have a personal or organisational cost that exceeds that of performing the checks, then the leadership is prepared to accept the extra work. However, when leaders seek to avoid all manner of errors as being too embarrassing to countenance, then the costs of bureaucracy begin to balloon. So, in essence, the first cause of bureaucracy is a form of poorly conceived risk avoidance. Hence we have documents with 8 signoffs, requests for unneeded information, committee structures that debate and do not decide, and … well, you get the idea.

To make matters worse, bureaucracy relies on 2 outdated notions:

  • Firstly that it is better to ask for all the information you might possibly need;
  • and secondly to place many of the checks and balances at the end of the process.

Hence, staff end up collecting data that will have little, if any, impact on the assessment of the risk; and checks and balances are heaviest at the end of the process, rather than taking the less expensive approach to control for errors early. None of this is helped by the fact that many bureaucratic processes rely on paper. Thus a slow process is made even slower by the transmission of documents from one place to another, not to mention having to deal with lost or erroneous documentation.

So, if it is all so inherently dumb, why is it so hard to get rid of bureaucracy? There are 2 major reasons for this. First, there are rather subtle, but also dark, payoffs for bureaucracy. Second, there is the simple fact that people have been inculcated with the belief that many of the controls are necessary protectives.

The dark payoffs are especially interesting, because bureaucracy has the delicious potential to delay decision or action. Why would anyone want to delay a decision or action? Well, a delay has real psychological value if an early decision, or action, is likely to increase the level of personal risk. So, for example, delaying decisions on a controversial building permit, or the approval of a major purchase, are rationally explained as risk management, or avoidance, strategies.

Therefore, if you really want to fix the malaise, you need to change the costs and benefits that accrue from bureaucracy, and enable management to drive the changes.

This calls for tough, but necessary, strategies as follows

  1. Ensure that there are costly consequences for obfuscation and delay, through clear targets, and potentially sanctions.
  2. Reward speed and discipline through public celebration and even financial benefits.
  3. Empower managers and staff to make the changes necessary, because if they cannot make a change then they can hardly be held to account for the targets.
  4. Finally, give management and staff the tools to identify bureaucracy and design alternative forms or risk control (for example, the application of lean process improvement techniques).

If we see bureaucracy for what it really is, being poor and costly risk mitigation with specific personal payoffs, then we can target it more effectively. This is a clear case of understanding your enemy before you go into battle.