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How to Defeat Corporate Bureaucracy in Your Business

by Borba de Souza 5 months ago in advice

Learn with the example of companies eliminating bureaucracy

How to Reduce Bureaucracy in Business by Adopting Systems Thinking

It was a snowy, idyllic afternoon in the scenic ski resort of Zakopane, in Poland. After drinking a coffee, together with my wife, I sit in a cafeteria waiting for our train back to Warsaw. Knowing about the long trip ahead, I searched in my kindle for a book that could help me with a monster that I was trying to tackle at my own business.


This ugly enterprise goblin appears when entrepreneurs are thirsty for information. In their hunger to visualize the numbers of their business, they do not realize the damage caused by an excessive amount of reports and controls.

Even worse, they do not see the burden that elaborating all those reports put in their teams and systems.

I heard before about something called Lean management and noticed that maybe this could help me in my quest.

Putting all together in the Kindle store search field, I discovered a book — in fact, an Ebook. The name of it is Freedom from Command and Control: Rethinking Management for Lean ServiceThe author is John Seddon, the man behind Vanguard, a consulting company operating in eleven different countries.

Here I will tell you the greatest lessons that this book presented to me.

The two management mindsets: “command and control thinking” and “systems thinking.”

The difference between those mindsets can be summarized in a few dimensions.

Perspective in command and control thinking: top-down, based on hierarchy.

Perspective in systems thinking: outside-in, based on systems.

Design in command and control thinking: functional, based on functionalities and features.

Design in systems thinking: based on demand, value, and flow.

Decision Making in command and control thinking: Separated from work, often made without improvements suggested by the “doers.”

Decision Making in systems thinking: Integrated with work done to maximize the performance of the “doers” in their delivery.

Measurement in command and control thinking: measurement focused on outputs, targets, standards, and budget.

Measurement in systems thinking: measurements focused on capability, variation, and purpose.

Attitude to customers in command and control thinking: based on what is determined by contracts.

Attitude to customers in systems thinking: based on what matters for the customers and for the company.

Role of management in command and control thinking: manage people and budgets.

Role of management in systems thinking: manage systems, operated and improved by people.

Change in command and control thinking: reactive, based on projects.

Change in systems thinking: adaptative and integral to the business.

Motivation in command and control thinking: extrinsic.

Motivation in systems thinking: intrinsic.

The Five “S”

Sort — Disposal of everything that is unnecessary.

Set in order — Put things in order.

Shine — Clean to original conditions.

Systemize — Clean, pure, untainted workplace free from bad habits.

Sustain — Be disciplined, keep polite behavior, and sustain what had been achieved.

How business roles are in a “systems logic”


Measures: demand and flow, service capability, predictability of demand, response, and failure.

Role: leads action on the system

Team leader:

Measures: the achievement of purpose, demand, and flow; variation in service of agent performance.

Role: leads agents in action on the system; act on causes of variation within the team’s control; act on causes of variation beyond the team’s control.


Measures: the achievement of purpose, variation in service agent performance, type, and frequency of demand.

Role: operate and improve systems.

Improve systems? How it is done?

Improvement comes from design against demand. The book gives a great example of engineers having their measurements made by failure reported and how fast they arrived at the site, but not by problem fixed. Soon engineers gamed the process and started to arrive fast (to have good indicators), report multiple problems but not solving anything.

After all, why solve anything if they were measured by how fast they arrive and how many problems they reported?

Simple examples of design against demand considering customer requests:

· Request from customer: service from my car by an insurance company. Expectation: An easy-made appointment with the closest mechanic.

· Request: I can’t log on to my computer. The expectation from customer: You are now logged on.

· Request: This is broken. The expectation: Now it is fixed.

Don’t train your employees only in what you think they should know, but also, and even more important, in what the customers want them to know.

Which questions you should do to discover if the problem in your company is a “system problem” or a “people problem”?

1 — Does the individual knows what is expected and what “Good” looks like? If yes, it is a system problem.

2 — Are the right things being measured? Are the measures related to the purpose of the system? If yes, it is a system problem.

3 — Are the measures related to performance over which the individual has genuine control? If yes, it is a system problem.

4 — Do the measures tell the individual in respect to what he is not performing well? If yes, it is a system problem.

5 — Are there adequate guides or job aids to exemplary performance? Are they simple? If yes, it is a system problem.

6 — Is the system — the way the work works — designed in an optimal way (waste-free)? If yes, it is a system problem.

7 — Could these things be better designed to support optimal performance? If yes, it is a system problem.

8 — Are there extrinsic motivators (incentives, etc.) distracting from adequate performance, encouraging people to get the reward rather than “do the job”? If yes, it is a motivational system problem.

9 — Would the individual fail to perform to exemplary standards if their life depended on it — even when they have adequate information, method, and motivation? If yes, it is a training system problem. This is a point that the former legendary CEO of Intel, Andrew Grove, always gave special attention to.

10 — Does the exemplary performer seems to know something that other people don’t know? If yes, it is a training system problem.

11 — Does the person should have special aptitudes, skills, and so on to perform the task in an acceptable, if not exemplary, manner? If yes, it is a selection system problem.

12 — Is it impossible or uneconomic to redesign the job to achieve a sufficiently productive fit between performance and what the individual is willing to do? If yes, it is a people problem.

Of the 12 questions above, answering yes to eleven of them would point to a systems problem, be it in the selection, training, or incentives and benefits systems.

Only one question points to a problem with your staff.

So, while the ideas from the Freedom from Command and Control: Rethinking Management for Lean Service in fact helped me to tackle increasing bureaucracy, it also taught me another valuable lesson. It taught me that often the problem is not your people but your systems, and you just don’t know it because you are not asking the correct questions.

Levi Borba is CEO of, creator of the channel Small Business Hacks, and best-selling author. You can check his books here and his other articles here.


Borba de Souza

Writer and business founder that enjoys writing about history and culture.

Founder of Small Business Hacks and My published books:

Read next: How It Feels to Be a Published Author

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