Endless documentation, mass email threads, stringent approval processes, meetings, and more meetings. Welcome to the world of organizational clutter. With the rise in remote and hybrid work models, these processes should have taken a back seat. But that unfortunately isn't the case.
A Harvard Business School study analyzing the communication patterns of employees in 21,500 companies found that we work longer days and attend more meetings than ever before. On average, employees sent 5.2% more emails per day with 2.9% more recipients.
Organizational clutter includes any practice that is a waste of time or resources and produces no results. This clutter may be due to the rise in performance expectations placed on employees, increased competition, or rigid bureaucracy within an organization. Whatever the reason, it's a bane to productivity and causes several problems. Here are some of them:
1) Barrier to creativity: If every new idea needs to be presented to several approval boards, employees eventually give up on innovation. A typical top-down bureaucracy doesn't give employees at all levels of the organization the freedom to explore and come up with promising new ventures.
2) Depersonalization: This occurs when organizations value rules more than the people involved. Individual circumstances and skillsets aren't accounted for, which eventually leads to employee dissatisfaction and burnout.
3) Insufficient communication: Lack of transparent policies and decision-making can often put us in frustrating situations. With important decisions coming only from the top management, employees may not always be able to adapt to rapid and unforeseen changes.
4) Compound losses: In an episode of HBR IdeaCast, Michael Mankins, co-author of the book "Time, Talent, Energy: Overcome Organizational Drag and Unleash Your Team’s Productive Power," talks about how inefficiencies can result in losses. To emphasize these implications, Mankins states that companies have cumulatively lost up to $3 trillion dollars on unnecessary processes.
5) Rule creep: Netflix's business model focuses on employee autonomy, and they're famously (or rather infamously) known for not having many rules. In their model, they describe bad processes as policies that exist to monitor mistakes that could be easily rectified. In order to prevent any errors, businesses often come up with more and more processes that end up creating a sort of "rule creep," without anyone becoming aware of it.
So how do we begin unraveling what's good and what's bad? How can we get rid ourselves of inefficient processes? Let's take a look at some possible solutions.
AI is your friend
Despite watching "I, Robot" more times than I can count, I still believe there's plenty of time before the robots overtake us. Meanwhile, it's smarter to utilize AI to speed up our work and weed out the inefficient processes. For example, we can use a workflow management tool to automate approval processes so that the right people can provide input at the right time. We may set up automatic triggers to send reminders at the appropriate time frames and create escalations for activities that require immediate action. This can save stakeholders time that would otherwise be spent manually performing such functions.
Foster community building
Instead of a traditional model that gives power only to the people occupying managerial roles, it can be effective to distribute the power to people who also perform customer-facing activities. A post detection control model empowers individuals to bypass bureaucratic rules as long as the decisions they make benefit the customers. To ensure transparency, employees must document such ad-hoc decisions and make them accessible to all team members. The financial group Affinity adopted this model and saw a 50% reduction in charge-off rates for their high-risk customers.
As more and more organizations turn towards an agile way of working, bureaucratic processes that bog down the systems automatically decline. While empowering agile teams is important, it's also crucial to acknowledge the individual tasks or members that don't fit within this category. Individual employees and their roles cannot always be replaced by agile teams. For example, while development teams inside the financial or healthcare sectors may be agile, it's impossible to fully eliminate bureaucratic processes and regulations from these industries. It's necessary to identify such members and give them as much autonomy as possible.
Measure only the necessary factors
Tracking every metric that you can think of and making reports out of them may sound like a good idea when you begin, but in reality, you only end up wasting more time. Analyze your business model and identify factors that truly influence your progress. This not only saves time and effort but also reduces the complexity involved in tracking these numbers. The wrong metrics could also lead us to draw inaccurate conclusions. One way to avoid this is to make sure the metrics you use line up with your overall business strategy. Another good practice is to try and flush out vanity metrics that provide no real value to your business.
Promote simple communication
Forcing employees to attend hour-long meetings every day or including a 20-member team on every email thread because "this is how it's always been" is not a good enough reason to continue doing so. Granted, in a large organization there needs to be accountability and record of important activities, but there's no one-size-fits-all solution. Businesses can boost purposeful interactions by reducing redundant communication methods or promoting informal channels for small team communication. For example, adopting an online team collaboration or project management tool is a great way to keep track of official decisions while still enabling instant contextual discussions. These tools can also help with asynchronous communication in the case of a geographically distributed team.
These are just some ideas to identify and reduce wasteful business processes. Organizations are increasingly looking for ways to cut through the red tape in order to boost their productivity. While this may not be applicable to all types of business, it's still good practice to evaluate yourself and see what can be improved. It's not that bureaucracy is inherently wrong, it's just that we need to identify what still makes sense in the current business setting. Removing this excess "clutter" not only improves your efficiency but also ensures that your employees are happy with the way they work.