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Adding Procedures? Proceed With Caution


Mutant procedures are invading organizations and multiplying in a cancerous fashion. Creativity is being killed. Workers are being transformed into robots. Organizational rigor mortis is setting in.

Sound farfetched? Perhaps, but as organizations mature, less descriptive yet similar problems are increasingly common.

Used in the right amounts and in the right ways, procedures can help your organization save time and avoid problems. For example, recurring issues are dealt with by instituting procedures or rules to save managerial decision-making time. Repetitive work activities are turned into procedures to reduce the need for constant managerial instructions and to avoid mistakes. Procedures are created to manage risk.

And over time, organizations add new procedures in the hope of saving more time and avoiding more problems.

Procedures are also created in reaction to problems. You probably have seen people suggest a new procedure when they are upset about something and want it stopped. These suggestions can result in improvements or they may simply be poor substitutes for communication or cooperation.

For example, someone is upset about the temperature setting being changed on the thermostat and suggests that a box with a lock be put over the thermostat.

So if someone wants the temperature changed, a formal request must be made to maintenance. Ugh!

Once they are in place, procedures might be modified, but few are typically removed. And over time, as more and more procedures are added, an organization's ability to move quickly and creatively is diminished. The need to fulfill the requirements of a number, if not layers, of procedures reduces our ability to seize opportunities and rapidly respond to competition. The organization loses flexibility and becomes rigid.

As we are increasingly aware, creativity, flexibility and empowered employees are critical to organizations as the pace of competitive and technological change intensifies. Yet in many cases, little thought is given to the cumulative effect on the organization of adding more procedures.

Have you ever championed an idea and become frustrated with the amount of time and energy you had to spend as you dealt with the multiple requirements associated with layers of procedures? Although these procedures might have helped you avoid some mistakes and ensured that you had communicated completely and to all parties possibly affected, you have lost valuable time and some of your enthusiasm.

Your experience in working through such bureaucratic procedures might make you think twice about suggesting an innovative approach. Reliance on procedures can also create a mechanistic culture rather than a people-oriented one.

Instead of spending the time to explain the whys and hows of a problem or to accomplish a task, a supervisor might simply direct an employee to review a certain procedure. Or when a new employee starts a job, the supervisor might rely on a procedures manual to train the employee instead of personal interactions that are vital in building and sustaining working relationships. When those interactions are reduced, employees may feel more like pieces of equipment to be programmed than people.

We should review the totality of our procedures. What are the risks we are willing to take? What are the costs of implementing a new procedure versus not implementing it? What are the benefits of a procedure versus the effect on the organization's creative/entrepreneurial spirit?

Procedures can become an addictive elixir for managers, particularly these days, as time becomes more precious and we seek relief from the headaches associated with problems.

But be watchful of mutant procedures. Assess the effect of procedures on your organization's ability to adjust and compete.

Consider streamlining rather than augmenting procedures. Be sensitive to the effect on innovation and the work environment. Pause and think deeper before establishing that next procedure.


Gary Izumo is an instructor in the Moorpark College business department and has managed his own consulting practice. He is a former McKinsey & Co. consultant and practice leader for the Strategic Management Consulting Practice of Price Waterhouse.

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