June 20, 2007

Bureaucracy is one of the greatest evils in organizations. Often the roots of bureaucracy are in the process of continuous addition of layers in the organization which inadvertently leads to duplication of work. Layering is a natural process in a growing organization. But at the same time it is the breeding ground for bureaucracy that may ultimately become a growth choking agent. Hence, it becomes a paramount responsibility of senior managers to consciously and frequently delayer the organization by purposefully identifying and culling layers where duplication of work happens without any significant value addition.

An example – I have often seen request for routine approvals landing on a senior manager's table with signature of atleast five different managers who had already reviewed it. I don't understand what kind of value addition the sixth manager is going to do! I firmly believe that if anything meant for approval is moving beyond two levels from the level of origin it's a sure sign of bureaucratic mismanagement. Even two levels is extreme in my scheme of things and comes with a caveat that not less than 90% of approvals must get closed at the level of immediate boss and only 10% should move to the super boss level for closure. But if it takes more than two levels to close an approval request, either you don't have right people to make right decision at various levels or you have simply created multiple layers to duplicate work without any real value addition.

The biggest problem with this addition of layers is that it slows things down to an absolutely uncomfortable level. An offshoot of this phenomenon is hanging decisions for further analysis and discussion. And the loop seldom gets closed in a reasonable time. It's true that taking decisions quickly means a slightly higher probability of committing mistakes. But I feel this slightly higher probability of making a wrong decision is preferable to frequently slowing down the organization by indecision. The speed and action orientation of faster decisions more than compensates for occasional wrong decisions. Also, those who are successful never feared making mistakes!

So what you, as a manager, must do. First, keep questioning every layer of your organization by constantly asking ‘do we really need this layer?’ Second, don’t shy away from de-layering if any layer is not adding any real value or if a layer becomes redundant by streamlining the process at some other layer(s). Third, prevent duplication of work by insisting on doing it right at the first point itself through delegation of proper authority and accountability. Fourth, focus on enhancing the quality of people and processes, the two most powerful weapons to fight bureaucracy.

To sum up, if you want to keep your organization agile and free from bureaucracy, do everything you can to make it lean, mean, and empowered.


  1. Anonymous // August 18, 2008 at 10:55 PM  

    Bureaucracy is an evil. Its being necessary or unnecessary evil is not relevant. Bureucracy believes in survival at any cost. Bureaucracy protects itself : it promotes itself. It convinces its political masters that it can reinvent itself to suit the political and governance needs of democracy. Bureaucracy has created an impression on political masters that government cannot be run without them. When politicians find it difficult to oppose or over rule bureaucracy they silently join hands with them following the age old wisdom of enjoying in the event of not being able to resist. Bureaucracy needs to be replaced by professionals who can perform.