THE BLOG
04/11/2014 01:49 pm ET | Updated Jun 09, 2014

Abolish Bureaucracy and Count Real Output

I'm chatting with a young woman at that awkward age of needing adult supervision, but not unless something goes wrong. We're conversing more or less like peers; I'm there as the necessary adult-in-the-house while her father is elsewhere, but we both know that absent a real emergency, I'm her guest. So, she's offered me a snack and is now recounting how her dad has begun trusting her to get ready for school alone after he's left for work.

"I have to call daddy when I wake up, so he knows I didn't oversleep," she tells me. "That's the first call. Then, I get ready, and then I have to go wait outside Mrs. Smith's house for her to come out."

Mrs. Smith is next-door neighbor and carpool driver, and the rule is simple: be at her car, ready to get in, when she walks out the front door. My Consultant Brain kicks in: "That's a really good, measurable output statement," I think to myself. "This kid understands it completely." Daddy sounds like a great manager.

But the story continues. "Daddy's hates when I'm late, so he wants me there early. My second call is from the cellphone, when I'm outside her car. It has to be ten minutes before Mrs. Smith comes out."

The way she screws up her face with emphasis tells me this is not OK. Consultant Brain lights up; there's a story here. "Ten minutes?" I ask innocently.

"Ten minutes!" comes the emphatic reply. "It's freezing out there."

In a moment's reflection, I realize dad parks his car in the garage overnight. Father and daughter both leave home in the dark, but dad doesn't experience the weather until after sunup, and for a lot less than ten minutes, at the end of his commute.

Consultant Brain now launches into a variety of fix-it scenarios. Can I coach this young person to bring this message to dad? Should I deliver it? Could Mrs. Smith open her foyer on cold days?

But the rule is to diagnose before you prescribe, a more polite form of the verb "to shut up." Consultant Brain assumes that the answers are mostly in place, and listens and learns until there's no more to learn.

"Oh?" I ask. (That's how Consultant Brain shuts up.)

"Yeah," she says matter-of-factly. "I would never lie to daddy, and I don't want to fight with him. So, every morning, I go out there at the right time, and I call him, and I tell him I'm there. Then, I come back in and wait in the house until it's time to go. My last step is to text him once I'm in the car."

The answer is already in place. I'm aghast. I'm impressed. It's a lie. Well, not a lie, exactly. A lie of omission? Not really. It's -- it's -- strangely familiar.

Wait a minute -- Consultant Brain cries -- I know this! It's bureaucracy. It's that form you're required to submit, to indicate that you're already doing what you're already doing. It's that meeting you must attend, in which you report that you're working on what you're working on. It's an unnecessary step, an extra acknowledgement of process rather than output, to give people the feeling that everything is going well.

Shut up, Consultant Brain. Daddy's happy. Daughter's happy. Manager's happy. Employee's happy. Where's the harm?

I could spend the rest of this article on the financial harm. We could count up how many people spend how much time doing unnecessary busywork that doesn't add to their useful output. We could multiply those numbers by costs of employment and figure out what we could do with just a fraction of the total dollars wasted in the US each month, and make lavish plans to spend all the wasted cash.

I'm even more tempted to spend the next few hundred words ranting about how offensive and destructive this is to capable individuals. No matter how carefully you hire really good people, if you saddle them with repeated assurances that they can't be trusted with basic process steps, you'll do more than just annoy them. You'll set up a dynamic in which they'll either quit or become less capable.

But what I really want to tell you is simpler, and Consultant Brain and I agree on this: It doesn't have to be this way.

My young friend could skip making the 10 minute pre-call each day and still make the carpool. My project team could skip completing the form confirming that they've made a project plan, and still make a project plan. My production manager could skip doing the verbal, ten minute "everything's fine" update each morning in the daily huddle, and still do the daily output. These things aren't necessary.

But, cry the bureaucrats of the world, they are! They provide a leading indicator. They let us know that things are going well.

Unless the project team is so used to filling out the form that they blindly check the boxes and submit before the plan is done. Unless the production equipment goes down and the output falls behind. Unless my young friend falls asleep on the couch while she's waiting for Mrs. Smith's carpool.

Of course, in that case, competent people with clear objectives will correct themselves. The project team will do a plan anyway. The production group will reshuffle resources to get on track if possible. Mrs. Smith will come-a-knockin'.

A real leading indicator counts a measurable part of the output early in the process -- not a process step itself. It counts project milestones achieved, not lists drafted. It counts count intermediate processing steps completed, not how Fred thinks it's going. It counts kids dressed and ready to go on time, not walks between house and car.

Of course, I'm a management expert, not a parenting expert. If you have the time and inclination to keep granular track of both process steps and outputs for your child, that's your business. But if you're a leader or manager planning to do that with your team, I'd strongly advise thinking again.

No matter how much you micromanage or annoy them, your kids can't make your factory stop producing, make all your projects fall behind schedule, or just plain quit without notice.

Your employees can.