Thursday, June 21, 2007

Bureaucracy vs. personal responsibility

Bureaucracy thrives on the intersection of limited resources with resourceful people.
After reading a blog entry by a colleague on the topic of reducing bureaucracy in business processes, I found myself thinking about the roots of bureaucracy.

Processes are made to guide the execution of action, and invariably include approval checkpoints to ensure those actions were executed. While processes must be simplified and eventually automated, checkpoints are the real productivity killers.

On lack of trust and inefficiencies

Some are offended by what they consider a lack of trust, others are distressed by foiled acquisition of equipment that could make their work more efficient. I have been on both camps, but I eventually got over both feelings. The reason? Show me a person with some common sense and I will show you four other people who cannot tell what they need from what they want.

At the root of bureaucracy one will often find the need to control the usage of common resources, whether it is the approval for the construction of a wall or for the acquisition of a new network router. In a never ending loop, people in the "I need the resource to do my job" camp find ways around the processes and the bureaucracy responds with more control points. Bureaucracy thrives on the intersection of limited resources with resourceful people.

Executives and keyboard purchases

Remove all the control points, and you soon my have a tragedy of the commons on your hands.

Of course, the extreme case of a senior executive approving a US$200 purchase should be avoided. On the other hand, US$200 may be the cost of that matching set of keyboard, mouse, and speakers that look great with the replacement workstation you received last week.

Personal responsibility to the rescue

Dilbert's principle book coverIn the tragedy of the commons, the only known solution is to eliminate or reduce the "commons" in favor of personal ownership, whatever that resource may be. Karl Marx would not be proud.

Scott Adams once suggested, in the serious portion of his excellent "The Dilbert Principle", that companies actually gave money to employees for the purchase of office items instead of the traditional supply bins spread through the building. It would be up to employees to individually purchase the supplies they needed or keep the money. The actual amount is unimportant - the bean counters have all the numbers they need to calculate that amount - but the company would no longer need to burden administrative staff with those tasks.

The real question is, could one try and stretch that approach to personal laptops or desktop computers? In many geographies, the cost of these machines can rival the monthly salary of their users. What happens when you hand out the money for equipment that should last 3 years and the person leaves the company before that period is over? Impound whatever they bought or demand a refund?

Solve that riddle and the end of bureaucracy may be at hand.

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