Even if bureaucracy brings values of rationality, good organisation and high control, some famous managers like Jack Welch declare themselves as foes of bureaucracy. Because, in most of cases, this system does not fit with modern business. In spite of that, a lot of companies stick on bureaucracy illusion, especially in France where business culture is very compatible with it.

When believing is  “the best is well shaped”, then processes design have to be rational, solid, with clear activity contents and clear connexions depicting with no ambiguity how to reach expected results. Not only, this leads to blur distinction between process and procedure, but to overdefine a lot of operations which will be hard to maintain uptodate.

Obviously, industries for which quality is an important business driver, have invested in making explicit their production processes. For example, pharamaceutical manufacturers ougth to settle total quality management approach to keep their production under control, otherwise non quality would thread their business. A lot of industries are in the same. For them, detailed processes documentation is vital for production.

But about office processes, too much details kill processes. Indeed, when detailed office processes does not depict the exact reality and are not performed as documented, it lowers the value of documentation, and finally of all the process management system. Often, processes are designed rationally by specialists to be enforced by workers who never succeed in. If some people complains about change resistance, most of the time processes are not applicable as they are, because they are not considering neither local requirements nor constraints.

However, when it is confined to local office, workers generally manage to improve an ill process. But when it happens on an enterprise wide process, changing is more complex, since initial design have been often negotiated between companies organizations, and negotiation is hard to reopen as it risks to break existing agreements.

When Max Weber write the theory of bureaucracy as a scientific management approach, its main interest was to be egalitarian, keeping out management from individual considerations. Indeed, bureaucracy provides rules which are applied to each worker with the only point of view of his function.

Later, Merton, in a larger context, identifies the drawbacks of functional approach : Workers are focused on performance details (function) instead of goals, it leads to impersonality, such processes are neither flexible nor adaptative.

Michel Crozier in “The Bureaucratic Phenomenon” lists some other drawbacks :

  • development of impersonal rules
  • centralization of decisions
  • isolation of strata and group pressure within strata
  • development of parallel power relationships

Then companies needs to design processes which avoid bureaucratic pitfalls. How to proceed ? First, they need to be focused on “what” side of the question : processes have measurable goals which lead to define  KPI (Key process indicators) and KPA (Key performance areas), including control objectives to mitigate business risks.

Sometimes, it is not worth to start too much global : for example, starting with operational processes customer to customer, you may, at the first stage, breakdown the process into sub process which produce mandatory sub results as sales, contract, production, delivery, payment.

Now let’s take sales for example ! Is it breakable into mandatory subresults ? yes, but now no breakdown exists without relation with a company big function or role  : “getting the demand” is related to front sales, “doing a quotation” is related to back-office and production, “getting agreement from customer” is related to back-office and legal department. We are still in the “what” area : all these steps are not linked with sale approach. They are sub sub process or macro activities level on which we are building a management framework.

Then, we start to break down “getting the demand”, and we understand that if it has mandatory sub results, these may be different according to the channel, the product, the area of business, the part of the company, the territory. We reached a point of complexity. Companies has to think how to streamline all this, if they want to have a high quality management. Now, for each variant, you have a distinct sequence of activities which are performed by role specific, and which use IS services. At this stage, we enter in the “how” area since activities are related with IS services.

Getting through the “how” boundary, companies have not detailed all activities. Some of them, for sure, when it is a production process with high quality requirements,  should be explicit. For some other operational processes, flexibility is an important driver, then, they do not to get into so much details to increase people empowerment. Some other processes could not be explicit at all, they are performed by tacit workers able to create an adhoc process.

Thinking at the level of management framework, balancing the effort of expliciting processes, empowering people, here are the 3 measures to avoid bureaucracy and to improve flexibily within organisations.

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