Checklists are essential for any complex process. They remind us of the proper sequence to perform tasks. Too often, checklists are used inappropriately by individuals that blindly follow them without thinking. For shutting down a nuclear reactor or pre-flighting a plane, that makes sense. For developing innovative products, checklists should be used as guides not commandments.
Beholden to the Bureaucrat
Checklists do have their place. They are an important tool for lots of different applications. What makes them evil is that bureaucrats use then as an excuse for not thinking. If it’s on the list, it has to get checked off. Period. End of story. No waivers. No excuses. No exceptions. This is where the bureaucrat gets their power. Instead of creating something useful, they have to get in the way. No bureaucrat will ever admit it but their job is to feed the bureaucracy. For bureaucracy to survive, it cannot assist you in getting things done. It has to continue to grow and control how things get done.
The Taming of the Bureaucracy
Working with a bureaucracy can be draining. All the forms. All the rules. All the drama. There are ways to successfully deal with all those checklist robots. Keep in mind that you have to deal with, not eliminate them — that comes later.
- Not Applicable: Putting N/A all over the bureaucrats fancy checklist may make them mad. The great thing about this method is that you filled the checklist out, so why are they so mad. This method tends to work best with people who don’t really care that much. As long as the form is filled out, what do they care. Don’t use too many N/A’s because that may alert higher bureaucrats.
- Waivers: Before dealing with the checklist robot, secure waivers. These are great ways to circumvent entire reams of paperwork. Waivers are usually given by management to people who have proven themselves (which means they don’t need no stink-en checklists). Apply for these early and make sure you get them in writing.
- Frantic Last Minute Requests: If you are a good actor and can convince the bureaucrat that your frantic last minute request is genuine, you can cut through a lot of wait time. You really can’t use this one that often since they will pick up on it but it’s effective.
- Get Them on Your Side: There are those rare bureaucrats who want something more. They understand that what they do is not productive but no one has given them the opportunity to do new things. Get them on your side by praising good work, putting in a good word for better assignments or just treating them better. Bureaucrats are people too.
- Plead Ignorance: Like the frantic last minute, pleading ignorance only works if you have not done it often. In a dynamic bureaucratic environment, where the policies change rapidly, this method is effective since even the bureaucrat can’t keep up with all the changes.
- Get to Know Them: By far the most effective method. The more you know about who you are dealing with the more likely they will care about you. Don’t fake the buddy, buddy stuff. Be genuine and try to learn a little each interaction. Pretty soon, you will start to understand what motivates your bureaucrat and how you can help them be successful. That is critical. Whatever you need has to be aligned to the success of the bureaucrat in some way.
Becoming Bureaucracy Free
Well almost. Even the smallest organizations need some bureaucracy or things soon spiral out of control. The trick is to do the minimum required by having only core processes. Within these core processes, the appropriate checklist will save you lots of time and money. Selecting these core processes should revolve around the following topics:
- Health and Safety: Anything dealing with the health and welfare of your employees or the public should have a rigorous process to implement and monitor compliance.
- Spending Large Sums of Money: Anytime you spend large sums of money to external vendors, you should put controls in. Money is an important asset to control. The limits will depend a lot on you business.
- Transferring Between Groups (or Handoff): Transferring ideas, assets or personal between different groups is always a problem. A checklist as to how each party deals with sending (and receiving) the materials will make everyone more productive.
- External Work Products: Items that customers or potential customers will interact with should follow a release process that ensures quality standards, look and feel and the business requirements are met. Nothing says sloppy like inconsistent documentation, logos or form factors.
- Required by Law: Enough said.
No company, group or organization can be completely bureaucracy free. Some controls are required to keep things moving. Resist the urge to over process your organization or you will create droves of checklist robots, waiting to get in your way.