Column: Bureaucracy, the Slow Moving Train

Friday, January 29, 2010
Bureaucratic culture is akin to a slow-moving train.

There are those who have forged ahead and laid track to the destination. They have scouted, planned the route, carved through forests and cut through mountains. Their work is often hard, thankless, sometimes dangerous, and quickly forgotten or taken for granted because by the time others actually use the track, the layers have moved on.

There are those who are charged with the overall management of the train, its freight, passengers, and crew. These conductors have little control over where the train is going only on how it is run, how the ride is experienced, and the timely arrival to a predetermined destination.

There are those who shovel the coal. Their work is tireless, their job is to keep the train moving, they have to shovel harder in order to start the train moving but once they have momentum it is easiest for them to try to steady the pace. But they are always at the mercy of the brakemen.

In fact they likely begrudge each other because their respective roles seem to be in conflict. After all, brakemen are responsible for pulling the brake, ensuring that the train doesn't take a turn too quickly and preventing a catastrophic derailment. Despite often frustrating the coal shovellers, brakemen provide an invaluable service.

We often focus our attention too narrowly, and in so doing we lose sight of the true nature of our business. We should remember that we are an enterprise, and as an enterprise we are not in the business of laying track, conducting, shoveling coal, or slamming on brakes. We are in the business of serving people. We are in the business of moving them from one location to another at their request; and we can't do that without track layers, conductors, coal shovellers and brakemen.

The tricky part for any organization is getting that mix right.

(Image credit: arnet)