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August 3, 2021

How to Fix Bureaucracy

By Mark Schwartz

This post is an excerpt from Mark Schwartz’s The (Delicate) Art of Bureaucracy


There are three things we must do to eliminate bureaucracy’s Kafkaesque aspects. We must make it lean by removing waste and shrinking lead times. We must make it capable of learning; that is, changing as the environment changes and as better ways are found to accomplish goals. And we must make it enabling—that is, helpful as a way to get things done rather than a no-saying, gatekeeping, troll-controlled impediment.

Lean Rather Than Bloated

Think of MD-102, a management directive from US Customs and Immigration Services, with eighty-seven documents and eleven gate reviews. It asks employees to fill out templated forms, wait for approvals, produce status reports, and sit in meetings.

There’s a goal to all this busy work: risk reduction. But isn’t it possible to accomplish that goal equally, or even better, with a less costly and less time-consuming process? One that is leaner and speedier? We can find out by applying the Lean toolkit, the discipline that is used in Lean Manufacturing, Lean Six Sigma, and the other Lean practices that descend from the Toyota Production System.

Learning Rather Than Petrified

Bureaucracy requires that we apply rules universally and fairly. Its roles and rules are necessarily rigid in the sense that they are applied without exceptions and by following a formalized process.

But this says nothing about how the rules are made. It’s not an essential characteristic of bureaucracy that its rules don’t change, only that once they’re set they’re applied rigorously. And that’s precisely what we must do: make our bureaucracies capable of learning.

That, in turn, requires that we set up feedback loops that tell us how well the rules are working, sensing mechanisms that let us know when new “best” practices exist, and mechanisms for continuously improving the rules.

Enabling Rather Than Coercive

Is the primary purpose of the rules to control employees’ activities by restricting them, or to empower employees by giving them a structure within which they can innovate and be productive?

The distinction may be subtle, but it makes all the difference between Kafkaesque nightmare and Blakean pleasant dreams. German sociologist Max Weber’s idealized bureaucrats use reason to efficiently accomplish objectives. That, in itself, is enabling: it supports employees in working together to get things done.

Unfortunately, bureaucratic structure can also be used by officials to control others for their personal satisfaction. Or it can establish well-tested protocols for getting work done and set guardrails that allow employees to work safely, quickly, nimbly, and with confidence. We’ll prefer the latter option—to make bureaucracy enabling rather than coercive.

Lean, Learning, and Enabling

If we can make bureaucracy lean, learning, and enabling, we can use it to organize a company effectively, at grand scale. Bureaucracy can be like an IT architecture that makes extremely complex systems possible by orchestrating the activities of microservices—bureaucrats and workers—through formal and logical activity patterns.

To push the analogy even further, in a well-formed bureaucracy we use loose coupling as a design principle so that each component—microservice, team—can innovate independently, knowing that the result of their combined activities will be the ultimate goal of the organization as a whole. Each component can be individually optimized, as can the overall algorithm that orchestrates their activities—that’s the principle of leanness. Each is checked into version control where it can be refined and improved and refactored— that’s the principle of learning. And each provides capabilities that can be used by the others and can rely on the overall design and the tooling to take away stress and toil—that’s the enabling part.

Discover the playbook to bust bureaucracy in our next post.

- About The Authors
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Mark Schwartz

Mark Schwartz is an iconoclastic CIO and a playful crafter of ideas, an inveterate purveyor of lucubratory prose. He has been an IT leader in organizations small and large, public, private, and nonprofit. As the CIO of US Citizenship and Immigration Services, he provokes the federal government into adopting Agile and DevOps practices. He is pretty sure that when he was the CIO of Intrax Cultural Exchange he was the first person ever to use business intelligence and supply chain analytics to place au pairs with the right host families. Mark speaks frequently on innovation, bureaucratic implications of DevOps, and Agile processes in low-trust environments. With a computer science degree from Yale and an MBA from Wharton, Mark is either an expert on the business value of IT or just confused and much poorer.

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