According to historian William Henry Chamberlain, it wasn't depravity that killed the Roman empire: it was bureaucracy and excess taxation. By then, the throne was just another office, and at one point, Imperial guards auctioned it off to the highest bidder. The empire was actually in the hands of functionaries who regulated every aspect of Roman life, built an enormous welfare state and squeezed the middle class out of existence to pay for it. Individual organizations can take a lesson from Rome's decline and do their best to scrub away the stain of bureaucracy as it appears.
Sure, we need people to handle the details and make sure the workflow process works smoothly. The problem emerges when they become interested in the process for its own sake, rather than as a productivity tool. An infamous example occurred in the 1980s, when Apple's board ousted go-getter Steve Jobs in favor of a bureaucracy-riddled corporate culture that alienated workers and customers alike. It took Jobs' return and immediate reorganization of the company to save Apple.
Michael Dell of Dell Computers, on the other hand, came at things in an economical way from the beginning. He eliminated the possibility of bureaucracy, partly by making members of his sales force found their own companies separate from Dell. This helped the sales division better understand how to assist their customers, and slimmed down the company. Similarly, in Japan the bunsha process spins off new companies from a central company when it starts getting too large, mostly to avoid bureaucracy.
As Roger Perlmutter discovered when he took the reins at Merck's R&D Division in 2012, one of the prime symptoms of out-of-control bureaucracy is too many layers of management -- and such a finicky obsession with process that it slows execution. He stripped away several such layers, and now Merck is leaner and more profitable.
Bureaucracy cripples businesses. Sometimes it kills them. You may not be able to banish it from your entire company, but you can certainly exile it from the part you control. Profit from the bad examples of the Romans and the between-Jobs Apple. Never hesitate to reach in and oil a process with a heavy dose of good sense. One observer suggests mocking those who even suggest growing the process for its own sake. Others insist you should allow your people to fail sometimes, rather than catch them whenever they fall; how else will they learn to do the job right? Failure can be a teacher, if you allow it.
However you do it, when even the hint of bureaucracy emerges, strike it down and root it out. Like kudzu, it may be impossible to kill it completely, but as a leader, you have to try... or eventually, it'll swallow you up.
Have you ever faced runaway bureaucracy and how did you handle it?
© 2014 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, MBA, is America's Premier Expert in Productivity™. For over 20 years, Laura has worked with business leaders to execute more efficiently, boost performance, and accelerate results in the workplace. Her company, The Productivity Pro, Inc., provides productivity workshops around the globe to help attendees achieve Maximum Results in Minimum Time®. Laura is the bestselling author of six books, with over 20 foreign editions, published by Random House, Wiley, and Berrett-Koehler, including her newest work, Execution IS the Strategy (March 2014). Widely regarded as one of the leading experts in the field of performance and workplace issues, Laura has been featured on the CBS Early Show, CNN, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times. Connect via her website, Facebook, or Twitter.