Bureaucracy— No!

Nov 25, 1996

Not much gets someone who works in an A/E/P or environmental firm more upset than unnecessary bureaucracy. I’m talking about stupid forms to fill out, channels to go through, or steps to take that don’t do anything to help make the company more profitable, improve client service, or raise quality. I’m sure you’ve experienced unnecessary bureaucracy at one time or another in your own firms. Many times, it’s the “new guy” who cooks up a lot of this stuff— you know, the woman you just hired to run the mechanical engineering department, or the fellow brought on board as human resources director, or the new chap down in the blueprint room. Then, because management is trying to be supportive of these new people and their initiative to improve things, they let them go down what will certainly be a dead-end trail without stepping in and saying, “This is ridiculous,” or “This will never work.” The bottom line is, a lot of time and money are wasted, the new manager looks stupid, top management loses credibility, and rank and file employees are demotivated. Here are some common examples of bureaucratic initiatives that many companies are hell-bent on trying. These fail spectacularly in a worst-case scenario and are merely a waste of time in a best-case scenario: Time sheet review. Firms waste a tremendous amount of time on this one, yet the mere suggestion that this may be a fruitless activity usually generates all kinds of ire from top management. Why do so many companies have their most expensive managerial people check to make sure that all job numbers and activity codes are right, or that the person who is trying to take vacation actually has a positive vacation balance? It’s crazy! I say load it all in, then when you have a problem, investigate where it came from. Better yet, use on-line time sheets— most of these won’t even let you charge time to a closed job, or to a non-existent job number. Copy machines with accounting codes. I hate these contraptions that require a 14- or 20-digit code to make a single copy! What a waste of time. I like the good old fashioned way of making a copy then charging it to a job number, either on a log or separate padded form at the copier station, if it’s billable. The time expensive people waste punching numbers (when at least half the numbers are for non-billable projects) is far more costly than the clerical staff time it takes to gather this stuff up and bill it when it is chargeable. Client contact forms. Every company has them, and only a few people ever use them. Why? They’re inconvenient and little is ever done with the information. So why fill one out? Because “the marketing director asked, and after all, there have been three people in that job over the last four years, and we don’t want to lose this one.” That’s not real compelling to many professionals working in line functions, who think marketing (and marketers) are a big waste of time! It makes a lot more sense to have an on-line database of information on clients and potential clients that everyone can access, and an electronic form to record what happened during any contact, whether personal or by phone. This way, the person making the contact can send it in from the road, or key it in when they get back to the office. On top of it, the firm can now easily produce call activity reports (make sure that the database is where this information is extracted from and the people who make the calls will want to be sure that they don’t miss out on the credit) and nothing gets lost. Project performance appraisals. I love these. Most companies, at one time or another, decide that it’s a good idea to have a “project performance appraisal” on every job. They spend weeks or months designing the form, tell the employees they are going to do it, get 60,000 copies of the form printed up (and padded, of course), then sit back and wait for the completed forms to come in to the director of operations, or whoever is supposed to collect and analyze this data. You know what happens? Nothing. A few people fill out the forms and everyone else doesn’t. And before you know it, this program, too, is forgotten. Client satisfaction interviews by the PIC. This falls into the same category as client contact forms. “Professionals” hate to fill out forms— and the higher the professional’s status, the more likely he is to not comply. Once he finds out that the managing partner or CEO doesn’t call him in for an ass-chewing for not making his calls, this will also fall to the bottom of the to-do list, and eventually, be forgotten. Manpower scheduling of all staff. Having a grand schedule for all work is one of those admirable ideas that fails every time. Why? Priorities change weekly and in some cases, daily. No one can predict all the changes that will occur when the schedule is set, and no one can update the schedules quickly enough to reflect these changes. And this is all greatly complicated the more jobs the firm has going at any one time. It’s not uncommon for a 200-person company to have 1,000 active job numbers! No wonder the master employee scheduler doesn’t work! Formal mentoring programs. I’m getting to hate the word “mentoring” almost as much as anything with the phrase “total quality” in it. How can any firm expect to assign mentors to intelligent people? People select their own mentors, not vice-versa. You can’t determine for someone who their mentor will be— they’ll pick someone they respect, period. So think about it the next time a new form is created, or new process is spelled out. Is this really necessary? Can we get our employees to do this? What will doing it really do for us? Will it help our clients? If the answer to any of these is “no,” go back to the drawing board. Originally published November 25, 1996

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.