Bureaucracy! Necessary evil or destroyer of employee & customer experiences?

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Bureaucracy – it is all around us – wherever we look. We cannot avoid it. No-one likes it, but it is something that is as inevitable in our daily lives as sleeping and eating. So much of our lives WASTED battling bureaucracy, it often makes me wonder why on earth so much of it exists! Since the global economic crisis in 2008, I have found myself pondering over this question more and more – usually when wading through treacle or pushing water uphill – largely because bureaucracy is so expensive!!

Before I continue, I must not assume that we will all be clear on the dictionary definition of a word that we are very familiar with. After a brief investigation, I have discovered that there are a variety of meanings associated with the word. This is what I discovered:

Various ‘dictionary’ definitions as follows:

  1. government by many bureaus, administrators, and petty officials.
  2. the body of officials and administrators, especially of a government or government department.
  3. excessive multiplication of, and concentration of power in, administrative bureaus or administrators.
  4. administration characterized by excessive red tape and routine.

None of the above definitions could be deemed as positive. In fact, Wikipedia states:

Since being coined, the word “bureaucracy” has developed negative connotations. Bureaucracies have been criticized as being too complex, inefficient, or too inflexible. The dehumanizing effects of excessive bureaucracy became a major theme in the work of Franz Kafka, and were central to his novel, The Trial.

Despite all of the negativity, some feel that bureaucracy is absolutely necessary. Wikipedia goes on to state:

The German sociologist Max Weber argued that bureaucracy constitutes the most efficient and rational way in which one can organize human activity, and that systematic processes and organized hierarchies were necessary to maintain order, maximize efficiency and eliminate favoritism.

This is pretty heavy stuff. So what do you believe? Is bureaucracy necessary, or is it a ‘way of working’ that has integrated its way into our society, steadily ‘destroying’ the experiences that we have as people – both as employees and as customers?

I will not sit on the fence when it comes to this question. I personally HATE bureaucracy. That is a strong word to use, but I use it intentionally. So much of the bureaucracy we experience on a daily basis is completely UNNECESSARY – all it serves to do is to waste the time of the people who create it and the people who are subjected to it. Anything that is unnecessary is what is commonly referred to as WASTE! The great thing about waste is that it can and should be ELIMINATED – doing so, has multiple benefits – it saves time; it improves efficiency; it improves morale; it improves customer perception; and perhaps most importantly…….it SAVES MONEY!!!

I sense that I am ranting…. so at this point, let me bring all the rant to life with an example ….. in a positive way.

Mary Barra

This is Mary Barra – the CEO of US car giant, General Motors. Having worked for the company for over 3o years, she is no stranger to the baffling world of bureaucracy. When she became CEO (amidst the massive ‘recall’ disaster), Mary was determined to move the organisation in a new direction.

Among other things, her focus was on making General Motors as ‘lean and efficient’ as possible. Mary wanted to do this by ‘handing power back to managers’ – inspiring stuff. In fact, what this still fledgling CEO actually did was something that many have failed to do – that many have not had the courage to do. Mary Barras tackled bureaucracy head on.

Referred to as her ‘smallest biggest change’, Mary stated her intent by changing the General Motors dress code. Over the years, bureaucracy had led to the dress code becoming a 10 page document – think about it…..a 10 page document advising employees what they could and could not wear – MADNESS! To me, this is just a fantastic example of bureaucracy gone completely mad! What Mary did is so simple, but so powerful. Mary scrapped the ten page ‘tome’ and replaced it with just two words:

Dress Appropriately

Brilliant – quite brilliant. In an interview about the change, Mary explained her motivation as follows:

“It really became a window into the change that we needed to make at General Motors, because I’d have managers sending me emails or calling me saying, ‘I need you to write it down.’ So I would take them through and say, ‘OK, what do you do?’ You know, ‘I run a group of 20 people. I’m responsible for $10 million of budget, etc.’ And I said, ‘I can trust you with $10 million of budget and supervising 20 people, but I can’t trust you to dress appropriately, to figure that out?’ It was kind of a step in empowering. Because we found that sometimes people hid behind the rules and didn’t like them, but didn’t necessarily step up. So this really encouraged people to step up.”

This story is just one of many examples the negative effect unnecessary bureaucracy has on an organisation. It creates rules; procedures; policies; control – if you are reading this, ask your HR department to send you your expenses policy – how many pages is it? I can guarantee you that it will be pretty lengthy. Whilst the motivation behind bureaucracy may be well-intentioned, what it ends up doing is leading an organisation down a path that will inevitably lead to far greater issues than if the bureaucracy did not exist in the first place!

I am writing this post from Harare – the capital city of Zimbabwe. Yesterday, I went with my colleague to a menswear shop down the road from our hotel. You would think that the purchase of a shirt for $30 would be a pretty painless transaction. You would be wrong – it took almost twenty minutes. Numerous forms were filled in. They all had to be signed by the branch manager. The shirt was then put in a sealed carrier bag. The sealed carrier bag was then checked by a security guard at the exit – having satisfied himself, he demanded to see the receipt for the shirt which he duly ‘stamped’. Necessary bureaucracy or destroyer of experiences?

As most of us still live and work in times of austerity, I strongly believe that we can no longer afford to keep dealing with unnecessary bureaucracy. Businesses are always telling me that they do not have enough people to do the things they need to do to deliver great customer experiences. I strongly believe that most organisations have more than enough people…… it is just so many of them are bogged down in dealing with bureaucracy; waste; non value add activity….. that they do not have time to do the things that would ADD VALUE – that would improve the experiences of their employees and that of their customers.

So is bureaucracy necessary, or is it destroying employee and customer experiences? You have probably guessed how I will answer that question. I long for a world where businesses TRUST people again – they trust their employees to do what is right and they listen to what their customers say. In a world where we trust each other, the need for bureaucracy is diminished. This may be a pipe dream that will never become reality. However, if you want to save money AND improve the experiences of your employees and customers, see if you can inspire your organisation to do what Mary Barras did.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Ian Golding, CCXP
A highly influential freelance CX consultant, Ian advises leading companies on CX strategy, measurement, improvement and employee advocacy techniques and solutions. Ian has worked globally across multiple industries including retail, financial services, logistics, manufacturing, telecoms and pharmaceuticals deploying CX tools and methodologies. An internationally renowned speaker and blogger on the subject of CX, Ian was also the first to become a CCXP (Certified Customer Experience Professional) Authorised Resource & Training Provider.

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