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The lure of the back-up

One of my favourite quotes, from management guru Peter Drucker  is: “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.”  It’s surprising how many people at all levels of business spend their time on work that actually makes a pitifully small contribution to their organisations’ goals. This is certainly true in the public sector, where I’ve seen the same topics discussed by several different committees which are actually composed of
the same managers.

Sadly, the same can also be said of private companies.  A university friend of mine spent her holidays working on the shop floor of a confectionery factory.  Her job was to inspect the filled boxes and make sure they contained the right kind of sweets (eg fruit sherbets, as it said on the packaging, and not chocolate fudge from the next production line) and met the weight requirements.  She completed a form and handed it to the supervisor.

“What do you do with all these forms?” she asked one day.
“They go in that cupboard,” came the answer.
“Oh, and what happens then?”
“We just keep them!”

Being a nosey sort, she opened the cupboard door and out  fell literally years’ worth of paperwork.  It had never been looked at.

“Why on earth do you carry on doing this if you do nothing with it?” she asked.
“Well,” came the answer, “We’ve always done it like  this. Management likes it to be there just in case.”

We are all guilty of “just in case” scenarios.  I’ve just been going looking through my filing at home and am horrified at the amount of “just in case” paperwork I’ve kept.  The last time I had a really good clearout seems to have been 1994.

Think of the money that businesses – and public sector organisations, come to that – could save if they thought through their processes and minimised the amount of just-in-case bureaucracy that is undertaken in their names.  This includes departments each making and keeping their own documentation on aspects of the same thing, which invariably means some duplication of the information they store.

Sometimes, it takes very little massaging of an organisation’s processes to make big savings.  Yet rather than look inwards and do a simple overlap analysis –
effectively the opposite of a gap analysis – businesses put more and more pressure on their sales and marketing departments.  They see this as growing the business: actually, as costs increase, they need to make more and more money just to pay the bills.  And if the costs are unnecessarily high to begin with, the poor sales team has to work very hard before the company can even start to achieve its goals.

Successive governments try to cut public sector costs by prioritising services and services within services, and allocating less money to the unfavoured few.  An example is my own local authority, which has taken some very strange decisions in an attempt to “prioritise” its spending, such as stopping plastics recycling collections, introducing 7-day parking charges into an already run-down city centre and leasing out the only building it owns that is big enough to hold public events.

Far better to take a top-down approach and get managers  talking to each other.  That way, they are much more likely to work together and find a solution that cuts their bureaucracy, and therefore the operations overload.  At the end of the day, to quote Peter Drucker again, “The purpose of a business is to create a customer”, and you can’t do that if your staff are too busy filling in forms!

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