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.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Who do you work for?

A couple of years ago, I had a long discussion with a colleague on the somewhat philosophical question: "Who do you work for?"

The discussion could have been shortened by the trivial "for whoever pays your salary", but that answer seemed inadequate and unnecessarily cynical. In the corporate world of public-owned companies, that is a "what", not a "who". The CEO does not pay your salary, nor does your immediate supervisor; an almost invisible army of HR specialists and automated payroll systems have taken over that duty long ago.

The real question was "Is there someone who has earned your loyalty above and beyond anyone else in the company?" Literature on the topic is extensive, inspiring leadership trumps most other job conditions, a healthy captain-crew bond can motivate employees to go beyond their job contracts (I said "healthy", cut it out on the jokes here :-).

Over the years, I have asked those questions to people in different walks of life, finding some obvious, and sometimes curious, answers. I compiled a list with some of the answers; providing my opinion about the way people relate to their work. Note that there is no reflection of people's commitment to their work, which is a different topic altogether:

"For the company"

No, I did not ask Asok, the abused intern from Dilbert's comic strip, but I did hear this answer a couple of times. For safety, whenever I heard it in a solemn "For the Fatherland" kind of tone, I just stepped back quietly and speed-dialed security after managing to leave the room.

Seriously, some people are just professional beyond individual loyalties. That trait made me separate this from the less-informed "For whoever pays my salary" category. People in this category bring critical stability to the work environment, lest you have a factional pool of opinionated employees in your hands.

"For myself, I don't trust anyone"

This is a common answer, often coming from people who have been in their careers for too long and burned by difficult bosses in the past. There is a strong inertia in getting people in this camp to be enthusiastic about any new project. The steel-hardened variety of abused employees are usually reticent to new endeavors, but the majority will quickly become extremely loyal towards a good boss if they can ever allow some light to shine in.

I also noticed a tendency in this population towards strong bonds with their team-mates, although those bonds tend to double as carriers of dissenting messages toward the establishment. Did I say negative?

"For whoever pays my salary"

The apparently mercenary nature of this answer actually hides the lack of direct good or bad experiences with the leadership chain. When followed by a scoff, I categorized this answer in the same bucket as the "For myself", but a shrug of the shoulders was the more prevalent body language accompanying this answer.

"For my boss, this guy rocks"

As noted by many authors, the influence of an excellent manager on employee morale cannot be overstated. Most of the respondents in this category displayed a sort of reverence while describing the moral attributes of their bosses.

There were two examples that showed up more than most: (1) situations where the boss undertook the employee cause at his own peril, and (2) situations where the boss managed to keep order under extreme external pressure.

Whereas the later is a sign of training and all-around competence, the first tends to form a lifetime bond.

Boss screaming at employees ear"For my boss, this guy throws rocks"

To parallel the introductory paragraph for the above category: the influence of an abusive manager on employee motivation cannot be overstated :-) I have been fortunate in my career to not have worked directly under a rock-throwing manager, but there is plenty of fodder in Stanley Bing's excellent "Crazy Bosses" series.

"For the customers"

This is a great answer, the ultimate answer, an uninspiring answer. Note that I am not downgrading the importance of customers for a company, but this was a quest for inspiration beyond financial compensation.

Unless the person worked directly with customers, I filed it under the "For whoever pays my salary" category.

For respondents who did work with customers, it was refreshing to witness such pervasive loyalties, with the respondent carrying the customer flag higher than his own company's.

There was also a direct tie to overall product quality. The better the product, the healthier the 3-way relationship between employee, employer, and customer. The worse the product, the more customer-biased the relationship, with the goodwill clearly tilted towards the customer.

Team huddle
"For my peers"

This is, by far, my favorite. An evolutionary step from the "For myself" answer; this is the brothers-in-arms crowd. They seemed as enthusiastic as the "For my boss, this guy rocks" crowd, but with the good-will spread towards the team rather than focused solely on the boss. The "boss" was often counted in the "peers" group.

These were folks that had been through a lot together and often had well-established bonds outside the work environment, sometimes including spouses and other common friends.

The positive effects on the work results are noticeable, with natural collaboration being the most visible of them. On the downside, newcomers may have an initial bad reaction to the perceived closed circle of people, but the environment tends to make them feel at home sooner than in other settings.

"For humanity"

I only heard it once, but it was worth mentioning. There was no imminent threat on the eyes of the respondent, so I didn't have to call for security. Maybe it was a Buddhist Kwan, but the effect was lost on me.

It takes an enlightened stance towards life to see humanity as the key benefactor to one's work unless you are a missionary in a disaster area. I am curious as to what it might feel like to see work in that light, which is what made me add it to the list.

"For Ayur"

These people are blindly dedicated to their stellar craft, work together like no other and for free. They are not necessarily real, at least until 2008 :-)

Their influence on the work environment is limited though. Their preference for telepathic communication and the necessity to slice open other creatures during their normal day job doesn't make for good water-cooler conversation.

In conclusion, these are the main categories. I am sure there are many other variations and interpretations out there, making up for a guaranteed sequel to this posting in the future.