Dealing with (internal) complexity

This is the second of two articles I have decided to write on the subject of (removing) complexity. The first article dealt with how to make things simpler for customers. This article will look at how to make things simpler for employees.

To see what was causing employee complexity I ran a poll. I gave people four choices to vote on:

  1. Our IT systems hinder rather than help us
  2. Internal bureaucracy gets in the way
  3. We can’t get hold of the data we need
  4. Our internal processes are too complex.

Care to hazard a guess at which was the most voted for option by far (I’ll give you a clue: look again at my picture above)?

A whopping 78% of the respondents blamed internal bureaucracy for making their jobs more complicated than it needed to be. Another 11% voted equally for Options 3 and 4 with (surprisingly) no one saying that their IT systems hinder their work!

I guess none of us will be particularly surprised to hear that internal bureaucracy is the main cause of internal complexity as we have probably all experienced this one or more times in our professional lives!  So, not surprisingly, I’m going to concentrate this article on practical ways of removing bureaucracy. But first, let’s look at what bureaucracy is and what effects it has on productivity and job satisfaction.

The causes and effects of bureaucracy

The term bureaucracy refers to a complex organisation that has multilayered systems and processes. These were originally designed to maintain uniformity and control within the organisation. They are a hark back to the past when it was a good thing to take your time and get people to check your work but with the advent of IT they are no longer required and as a consequence, effectively make decision-making too slow for everyone! These organisational structures, designs and processes are so well embedded in the larger companies that they are almost impossible to undo, in some instances but undone they must be if we are going to respond more quickly to the needs of employees and customers.

Implicit in a system of bureaucracy is an inherent lack of trust in front line workers and a lack of understanding of the impact on all involved. In my last article I mentioned how allowing call centre workers at British Gas to write off contested sums of less than £10 led to a huge reduction of internal processing effort and an increase in customer satisfaction, as one example of what you can do when you empower your workforce.

It’s one thing to have a clearly defined bureaucracy (as it least you know what the process is). What’s worse is when you don’t even have this. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in situations when nobody knew who was responsible for signing off certain types of decisions leading to the decision being passed from pillar to post, frustrating the hell out of everyone!

The last thing that frustrates people is not knowing where the documents are that they have to refer to, to find out what policy of procedure they should follow in a particular situation. And even worse than this is when you find multiple documents seemingly addressing the same requirement and then not knowing which takes precedence!

What can be done about it?

There are a number of steps that can be taken to reduce or even eliminate bureaucracy and by doing so, make everyone’s lives easier:

1. Simplify and delayer the organisational structure

An organisation with a number of layers between top management and front-line employees can slow communications and the flow of information and increase the number of “hands” an issue must pass through before being resolved. Ask yourselves, “do we really need this level of inspection/approval”? Look critically at your approval limits and processes and question whether these can be relaxed or even removed. Remember, most IT systems create a log of all decisions taken so you can review them, after the event, if need be.

Part of how you can break down silos and silo thinking is by assembling diverse, cross-functional teams to identify and solve cross-functional problems. One of the firms we represent has helped instil such an approach with considerable effect at a number of large companies. Unfortunately, we can’t name exactly who they have helped as these companies are rather shy to admit that they were so bureaucratic before they were shown the light by our firm ?.

2. Create a collaborative problem-solving culture that breaks down silos and rewards rapid, effective decision making

A very useful device that should also be deployed is an Ideas Management tool like Wazoku which can be used to help surface the most intractable problems from the field and then bring to bear ideas and innovation from within the organisation and from outside. Several large companies who have deployed such tools have reported significant time and cost savings (running into many many millions). There are many case studies I can share with you if you are interested.

3. Use case management/workflow tools to ensure each process runs smoothly from end-to-end and ensure no case gets lost or forgotten

Many people will blame the fact that their raft of legacy systems and processes for hindering their ability to keep track of a case and to ensure each case is progressed quickly and efficiently to resolution (through the various departments). These problems are easily overcome by case management tools (like Pega) that can be programmed to move cases along whilst keeping the various legacy systems whole. A great benefit of such a system is that you can then create a single source of truth, available centrally to all, stating where each case is.

Not only have I helped the Royal Navy see the benefit of such systems on their ability to assign the right load to ships but as a patient of the NHS recently – the Chelsea and Westminster hospital, as it happens – I saw them use case management to my benefit. I had a serious undetermined health problem. I met a consultant who ordered a whole range of tests for me, with various departments. I had assumed that I would need to wait a long time and push the process along but I was wrong. It could not have been a smoother process, thanks to case management. Everything was organised for me in good time and sent back to my consultant who was able to tell me the good news (that what I had was gone and I didn’t have any cancer either!)

4. Provide employees with the data they need to make rapid decisions

Many employees don’t know where to look to find the definitive answer to how they should handle a particular issue. Also, since covid and with most of us working from home, we can’t just turn around in our swivel chairs and ask a colleague for help. This is where conversational AI tools come into their own. One of our firms has such a tool. They have helped employees in Tesco (through a bot called Tess) answer their key questions, 24 x 7. They also developed a bot for a global bank which would allow employees across the world, know which risk policy applied to a particular situation without calling or emailing the central risk team. Again, this service works on a 24×7 basis allowing a more rapid decision to be reached whilst at the same time, massively reducing the workload of the central Risk Management department.

I’d love to hear back from you what problems you’ve experienced with bureaucracy and whether you have some simple additional tips for how to deal with it effectively. Please email @ or comment on this article.

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