Add Zest to Bureaucracy Bashing

Tom Peters

We all agree that bureaucracy in general impedes action, and that inaction is intolerable in today’s fast-changing business environment. And in a recent column I paid special heed to the necessity of smashing functional barriers, in order to speed product development as well as all forms of responsiveness to customers.

But how do you get your arms around the gray, amorphous mass called bureaucracy in any practical way? The annual plea to “cut bureaucracy” helps not a whit; neither does the paperwork-reduction committee.

But there are two surprisingly effective tools: fun and participation by all. Turn the dull chore of unraveling the red tape and dismantling the vertical, functional fiefdoms into a spirited campaign. And be sure to measure the results.

Be colorful, even zany. Lock your office door for good and move your desk into the central work area. Get rid of all your file cabinets—a colleague calls this “just-in-time inventory management for white-collar workers.” Refuse to read any reports that are longer than three pages. Put big, cardboard boxes around your desk, and throw unnecessary or excessively long reports into them—unread. Label the boxes in red: “This month’s unread paperwork.” At the end of a month or so, order beer and pretzels, and have your colleagues join you at the incinerator. Burn in public the accumulated, unread paper.

Have everyone continuously nominate forms and irritating regulations that they want eliminated. Appoint a high court, of principally line and junior people, to evaluate the nominations—fast. Insist that at least 50 percent be accepted. Each month or so, perhaps coincident with the paper burning, have an awards ceremony, with prizes for all whose Mickey Mouse regulation-removal ideas have been accepted. Add the newly nixed forms and procedures to the incinerator.

Encourage direct communication, by allowing generous limits on expenses for airplane travel and phone bills, if they are aimed at freeing up projects or negotiations stuck at crucial milestones. Insist on a monthly, one-page report on log jams unblocked by personal presence—again, give awards for those who have sped up action the most. Include special positive recognition for committee meetings missed in order to personally unblock a stalled project. Most of the committee meetings are, after all, devoted to projects that are stuck. It’s far better to act than to debate and apportion blame for the inaction.

As for breaking down those vertical, functional barriers, begin by treating your group like a company—treat other internal functions like outside vendors and customers. Practice “customer” listening and “customer” visiting. Reward your “salespersons” (that is, everyone) for keeping suppliers and customers happy. Hold “vendor” and “customer” appreciation day open houses for those other functions.

Suppose you are in manufacturing. Invite the entire division controller’s staff to your next Friday beer bust. Invite the distribution center to the one after that. Send one of your shift supervisors to the purchasing department for two months to work on a special project. Send a thank-you note to the person in the accounting department who worked all weekend to get the numbers you needed for a critical project, with a copy to his boss and his boss’s boss. In fact, direct 25 percent of your formal pats on the back and discretionary bonus awards to those in other functions who vigorously supported your group.

Devote another 25 percent of that discretionary bonus pool for spot and year-end merit awards to people in your group for notable acts of inter-functional skid greasing.

In other words, keep piling on attention getters that say in a host of ways that every manager’s chief objective should be to proactively facilitate action, not block it in the name of preserving functional integrity.

Here are a couple of other bureaucracy busters: Allocate a quarter of your weekly staff or monthly operations meetings to reviewing and devising acts of cross-functional cooperation and barrier removal. Also at that meeting, poke fun at bureaucratic behavior, starting with your own. Give yourself a report card, citing violations such as excessive paperwork and turf-guarding actions. Also grade your dealings with every other key function—and have the outside functions submit their grade of you. Rotate responsibility for report-card preparation among staff members—give kudos for most thorough report cards. No “A” grades allowed!

Everyone’s annual performance evaluations should have a major component devoted to progress on proactive, functional barrier bashing. Anything less than a high grade on this vital attribute eliminates the possibility of a merit raise; on the other hand, a very high grade on this activity virtually ensures a sizable merit raise.

The issue of speeding all action through barrier bashing and bureaucracy reduction are of the greatest strategic consequence to almost every firm. So put them at the top of your agenda through fun, outrageous acts, participation, awards, rewards, report cards, ceremonies, and annual evaluations. Get everyone involved in seeking out and removing hurdles that block fast innovation and overall responsiveness.

(c) 1987 TPG Communications.

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