Too Much Red Tape At Work?

Unnecessary paperwork and rigid conformity to rules - otherwise known as red tape - I hate it. I avoid it, where possible. It prevents action, slows down decision-making, and wastes an extraordinary amount of time.

Apparently, I am not alone. Most people want to do a good job. But they feel frustrated when unnecessary paperwork takes them away from what they see as the most important part of their work. Child Safety Workers, for example, often tell me that they spend at least 80% of their time doing paperwork, instead of working directly with families. 

Yes, there are reasons for paperwork and regulation, of course. They are there to facilitate consistency among large workforces and to minimise risk. However, part of me wonders if the main reason red tape is there is to stop senior management or politicians from looking foolish. 

Please don’t get me wrong - there is a time for paperwork and regulation. Australians need only recall how the lack of regulation contributed to the deaths of installers connected to the national home insulation program. It is only unnecessary paperwork and regulation I am against. However, I appreciate that part of the problem is that there are different views as to what paperwork and regulation is necessary.

A crane operator told me recently that he has to submit a lengthy application each time he moves a crane over a bridge. Fair enough, you think? Unfortunately, he says, there are different bridges along a route, each requiring a different approval, which, when granted, is only for a short period of time. So, when he needs to return the crane to the depot, he goes through the process all over again. He says  that rather than growing his business, he spends a good deal of his time completing this paperwork.

Cutting red tape is a popular government policy, of course. But while we are waiting for government to get its act together, what actions can we take?

The challenge is working out which rules to follow closely, which to be flexible in, and which to ignore. Those in leadership roles need to be clear with their staff about priorities, policies in which everyone needs to be consistent, and those in which there can be some flexibility. 

Or is there a more efficient way to access and pass on customer feedback? The last thing many upset customers want to do is to spend time filling in paperwork that may well be ignored. But they may be open to you offering to pass on their comments to management. 

Instead, is it possible to delegate appropriate authority for certain decisions to those who are closest to the issue concerned? Yes, there can be boundaries, of course – the limits of the authority being delegated and policies that need to be followed. People also need to be clear as to when any matters need to be escalated to a higher level. 

There are also times to speak up, to advocate for change by putting the argument in terms that are motivating for senior management. But we also need to accept that there are some matters beyond our control, which we need to endure or make the best of. 

However, as we direct our energies into those areas that are in our control, the more in-control and empowered we will feel. We all deserve to be free of unnecessary paperwork and inflexible systems, so we can work at our very best.


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