Contact theSOPAbout theSOPSupport theSOPWritersEditorsManaging Editors
theSOP logo
Published:March 12th, 2008 12:31 EST
Confronting Bureaucracy Can Be Perilous

Confronting Bureaucracy Can Be Perilous

By Terry Sumerlin (Mentor/Columnist)

One of the many stories President Reagan told involved communist Russia. He said that one of its citizens was finally able to save enough money to buy an automobile. So, he went to the proper bureau and filled out all the necessary papers for his purchase. Having done that, he was given a date of delivery that was five years away.

"Will that delivery be for the morning or afternoon?", the man asked.
The agent shot back, "What difference does it make? We're talking about something five years away?"

"Because," the gentleman replied, "the plumber's already scheduled for that morning."

Reagan would use the illustration to point out the inefficiency of Russia's whole system. He would also, quite often, say that the number one job of a bureaucracy is to preserve the bureaucracy.

All of this came to mind when I was called on to give a speech to a governmental agency. I was specifically asked to deal with how to motivate those who are constantly coping with regulations and red tape. Though a challenge to agencies, it's also the challenge of many in the private sector.

Fortunately, at J.B.'s Barber Shop, we don't see a lot of bureaucratic red tape. However, we do answer to various agencies, including the Internal Revenue Service. And the same is true of all businesses. None are unaffected. So how can we best cope?

First of all, since we have little choice, we can comply. However, in the process of complying, we must also keep our priorities straight.

One of the things I tried to stress in the speech that I mentioned is that people are rarely highly motivated to serve bureaucracies. On the other hand, employees might have a better attitude toward tedious, boring or stressful procedures if leaders impress on them that they're performing tasks required by certain agencies, without which the business is not allowed to exist. And, by existing the business, therefore, provides the public with valuable services or products and provides them with jobs.

Looking at the matter from the customer's point of view, there is something else we can do in the midst of bureaucratic procedures: we can shield him/her from as much of it as possible, and thus make it easier to do business with us.

An example of failure to take care of the customer in this way involves something that happened years ago in a hotel restaurant. I ordered a cheese Danish and received this reply from the waitress: "I'll see if we have one. However, normally management doesn't like us to tell customers when we have them, because when we tell them we sell out too fast." And, with that said, she went off in search of the priceless pastry. In a few minutes, she came back to the table carrying my Danish on a saucer as if she bore the Hope Diamond.

I still laugh every time I relate the ridiculous scenario. Yet, the sad part is that to management and employees of the restaurant the rationale behind their approach probably made perfect sense. The absurdity of it all, and how it epitomized slavery to a ridiculous system, was apparent only to guests.

The incident, itself, didn't involve regulations from some sort of governmental agency. However, it nonetheless illustrates an approach taken by many businesses. It involves, above all things, strict adherence to systems, policies and procedures rather than attention to serving the public and making a profit. As a result, the customer tends to lose patience in trying to do business, and the business tends to lose customers.

At J.B.'s Barber Shop, customers don't need or want an explanation of barber codes and standards before they're allowed to get in the barber chair. They just want customer-oriented service that gets them in and out. It's probably the same way in your business.

BARBER-OSOPHY: Whatever rules, regulations and systems are used in business, they must always be subordinate to people and profit.