From Red Tape to Duct Tape

It is known as red tape. The administrative mélange of sticky steps, procedures and forms required to complete what should be a simple task. What drives this messy cocktail of work to exist in the first place? One word: control. Each level of management wants to ensure that they are in control and informed of all activity. A more familiar term for this is micro-management (although this arguably gives too much credit to the act…the term management implies some value add in the process).

It all starts out with a basic and commonly performed activity. Then, one day, some high level executive gets a wild hair that this activity is occurring too often. A process is put in place to track the occurrences of the activity and report to the executive. In order to ensure that the executive is not surprised by the results, the process is modified to allow middle management to pre–approve any planned occurrences of said activity. Of course, the lower levels of management cannot be left out, so new tape is added to the process requiring pre-authorization of any request before being submitted for pre-approval.

The new tape has the desired effect at the executive level. The activity does occur less often. This reinforces the perceived usefulness of tape and tends to lead to more adhesives and bandages applied throughout the organization. Before long, the employees find themselves bound by rolls of tape like a hostage in a bad movie. Unfortunately, with hands and feet bound, the employee has little faculty to perform any kind of meaningful work; the actual result is significant and superfluous inefficiency.

Eventually this grind becomes evident. Then, one day, an executive has an epiphany (actually, a consultant whispered in their ear). This inefficiency must end. Delegation! That’s the answer. Cool words like empowerment, delegation and trust are thrown around like feigned smiles at the Oscar awards. A decree is passed down: “No more approvals.” The process is streamlined. The shackles are released -freeing all from the bondage of bureaucratic process. Sounds great, and looks good on paper.

What actually happens, however, is that the intoxicating control is not easily relinquished. While the official process may have removed all pre-approvals and authorizations in order to force the reduction of red tape, middle management is not so willing to surrender control. While they overtly adhere to the process, they covertly introduce their own process for pre-approval. Likewise, the lower levels of management put in place their own home-brew processes required before entering the next level of process.
Now, instead of one convoluted process of red tape, one must traverse multiple sticky obstacle courses. The red tape is certainly reduced; unfortunately it has been replaced with a wad of intertwined duct tape, masking tape and glue.

Great! Now we are getting somewhere.