March 17, 2013

Is Bureaucracy Just Another Word For Governance?

Fascinating opinion piece by Fisman and Sullivan in the Wall Street Journal on Friday (15 March 2013) called "The Unsung Beauty of Bureaucracy."

The authors argue that bureaucratic rules and regulations serve important purposes in that while "less good stuff gets done--but it also puts a check on the kinds of initiatives that can lead to catastrophe."

And they give numerous examples of industries that perform sensitive functions that you would want to actually take some extra time to make sure they get it right.

A vary basic example given was the company Graco that makes infant car seat and strollers; they have five design phases and hundreds of tests that add up to two years to product development, but who would rationally argue against such quality controls processes to protect our children.

They make another good point, we always here about bureaucracy slowing the innovation and product development down, but what about the "bad ideas that were quashed as a result of the same rules?"

We all rail against having to jump through hoops to get things done and rightfully so. The mission is important, time is of the essence, and resources are limited--last thing anyone wants is to be told you have x process that must be followed, y gates to get through, z signatures to obtain--and that's just for the routine stuff! :-)

But as much as we hate to be slowed down to cross the t's and dot the i's, often that's just what we really need--to make sure we don't do anything half-a*sed, stupid, or jut plain reckless.

One mistake in an operational environment can bring things to a standstill for thousands, in a system it can have a dominos effect taking down others, and in product development it can bring deadly consequences to consumers, and so on. 

So putting up some "bureaucratic" hurdles that ensure good governance may be well worth its weight in gold. 

Frankly, I don't like the word bureaucracy because to me it means senseless rules and regulations, but good governance is not that.

We need to stop and think about what we are doing--sometimes even long and hard and this is difficult in a fast-paced market--but like a race car taking the turn too fast that ends up in a fiery heap--stopped not by their steady pacing, but by the retaining wall protecting the crowds from their folly.

One other thing the author state that I liked was their pointing out the government which is involved in so many life and death matters needs to maintain some heightened-level of governance (I'll use my word), to get the food supplies safe and the terrorists out.

From clear requirements to careful test plans, we need to ensure we know what we are doing and that it will work. 

At the same time, showing up after the party is over serves no purpose.

Like all things in an adult world, balance is critical to achieving anything real. ;-)

(Source Photo: Andy Blumenthal)


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