Bureaucratic Waste

While reading through The Everything Store, the story of Amazon’s rise under Jeff Bezos’ leadership, I was affected by one anecdote about Bezos:

Whenever Jeff Bezos roamed a fulfillment center or his own Seattle headquarters, he looked for defects—flaws in the company’s systems or even its corporate culture. On an otherwise regular weekday morning in 2003, for example, Bezos walked into an Amazon conference room and was taken aback. Mounted on the wall, in a corner of the room, was a newly installed television meant for video presentations to employees. A TV in a conference room did not by itself seem controversial, yet Bezos was not pleased. The installations, which he had not known about or authorized, represented to him both a clumsy attempt at interoffice communication and an extravagant expenditure. “How can anything good be communicated in this way,” he complained. Bezos had all the new televisions in Amazon’s conference rooms immediately removed. The television episode was the foundation of another official award at Amazon, this one presented to an employee who identified an activity that was bureaucratic and wasteful. The suddenly superfluous televisions were given as the prize.

As an organization grows, it’s all too easy to succumb to “minor” culture changes that seem innocuous, but in the long run add up to cause a cultural stifling to occur.

In an effort to streamline communication or increase efficiency across groups within an organization, small, quick-fix solutions are added to help address the disruptions that result from rapid growth. Requiring employees to suddenly fill out boilerplate forms or go through lengthy review processes: small changes designed to “reduce risk” while helping to “scale” the organization. Yet each one of these small changes add up over time and can affect an organization in unintended, harmful ways.

I experienced this process of incremental bureaucracy first-hand. As part of the normal workflow for fixing software defects, software engineers would fill out several fields in the issue-tracking software before marking a bug as fixed. These required fields (such as what product the bug was in, severity of the bug, etc.) where useful and there was only a few of them. But later, in order to address some particular pain point that one engineering group was dealing with, a new required field was added so that all engineers now had to fill it out in order to mark a bug as fixed. Because no one pushed back and questioned this particular solution to the problem (“It’s just one extra form field”), the situation snowballed. Within a year, there were nearly a dozen fields that had to be filled out before a defect could be fixed. It took about five extra minutes for every engineer to fill in these extra pieces of information. This extra information only benefited several people in middle management, yet hours of productivity across the entire product engineering organization was lost. And the situation continued to worsen, as more and more managers decided to roll out policies and procedures designed to fix symptoms of larger problems–without addressing the deep-rooted problems themselves–and at the expense of engineer efficiency. A core tenet of the organization–efficiency in solving problems–had been whittled down and was ultimately lost.

Bezos’ vigilance is refreshing. From the start, Bezos founded Amazon with a core ethos of frugality–skipping costly company expenses in order to pass savings onto customers. The purchase of these TVs signified a breach in one of the company’s core tenets. Realizing that the little changes matter, and that once they’re unleashed onto an organization it’s that much harder to undo them or to stay true to the original company culture, Bezos knew that the addition of TVs in conference rooms indicated a bigger problem than just the financial expense–communication across a large, dispersed company. But rather than allowing TVs in conference rooms–encouraging comfortable, time-wasting discussion and inaction sessions–he forced the problem (communication discomfort) to stay in the forefront. Not allowing employees to get comfortable promoted less talk and more action by forcing them to make quicker decisions with less hemming-and-hawing that come out of lengthy committee sessions.

There’s many lessons to learn from Jeff Bezos and the story of Amazon’s success; but this particular passage resonated with me. By remaining attentive to and pushing back against “well meaning” changes that smell of bureaucracy and only address symptoms of bigger problems, employees1 can help shape company culture. Otherwise when no one cares, when no one pays attention, company culture can erode and devolve into something unintended and unpleasant.

  1. You don’t have to be a high-powered CEO in order to affect change inside an organization.