Tanya Warnakulasuriya explains how to simplify HR structures and permit employees to take control

Picture this scenario… A sales manager of a large multinational organisation has a simple IT problem about which he calls the IT division at his branch. The IT people investigate it and inform him that while they could rectify the problem immediately, the manager would need to complete a ‘global service request’ form.

This form then needs to be authorised by the head of the division, which will take more than 24 hours as he’s at meetings all day. Once that authorisation is completed, further approval is required from the country head and head of IT.

Completing these steps could take a total of three days; and that’s three days of lost sales for the company! This could have been avoided if the branch’s IT person was allowed to rectify the issue immediately.

Is this an efficient way of working?

If you have worked in internal audit or for a global IT division, you may insist that such layers of protocol are essential to avoid the abuse of systems and unauthorised use of company property. The fact is that the collective cost of wasted time and productivity, which are the result of overly bureaucratic processes, far outweigh the savings that accrue from fraud or the prevention of unauthorised use of company resources.

It is a painful fact that as many companies grow and expand, they develop increasingly complex and overly layered operating structures. We’re told that these are designed to make operations more agile in what is a rapidly changing business environment, but they do the opposite in reality.

Most workforces find themselves stripped of power and responsibility as more reporting layers are installed between them and the board. As a company expands, decision-making becomes more centralised with managers attempting to justify their existence and retain control.

Such centralised structures result in severe bottlenecks of knowledge as key management information struggles to reach workers, and vital production and customer information is then slow in being passed back to the central decision-makers. There are simply too many layers in-between and essential business information becomes lost in translation.

So does your company have too many layers?

Try this simple test…

Go to your factory floor, customer service desk or local branch sales assistants and ask them to tell you what your company’s vision and corporate values are. It is virtually guaranteed that at least eight out of 10 companies will find that their ‘ground staff’ wouldn’t know these.

The concept of lean organisations and thinking that was developed by Toyota in the 1970s seems to be outdated. Yet, its key tenets are still valid. Ensuring that all activities can be correlated to adding value to the customer is still important, and being able to eliminate non-value activities – as well as reduce waste and inefficiency – is still essential to business survival.

However, if you were to ask most support divisions why they do what they do and how their activities directly benefit the organisation’s customers, most would struggle to offer an answer. One reason for this is because no one really questions new protocols and procedures that are put in place. At best, protocols are piloted and tested before they’re rolled out but very little notice is taken of the results or outcomes.

Having followed the painful process of introducing and embedding a new procedure, what happens if it is found that it doesn’t work?

No one is held accountable. A band-aid solution is quickly found, which usually involves… you guessed it, more new processes and procedures!

Jon Husband’s Wirearchy Management Framework offers four key pillars that need to be upheld in an organisation, no matter how complex its structure is. They are the seamless flow of knowledge, trust between all levels of the organisation, credibility and a focus on results-based operations. For these pillars to be upheld, companies must encourage three rules of thumb.

First, workers should ‘work out loud.’ In other words, they should be able to narrate their work – tell the story of what they do and why they do it. This is incredibly empowering for the employee and workers understand how they play a part in the overall structure of the company by having these conversations with each other.

Secondly, critical thinking is key. All employees can develop their personal learning systems when they have the right to question the systems and procedures that have been established. Without blindly following and resenting processes, a vocal workforce can provide valuable feedback.

And finally, there must be proper distribution of authority among employees. If a business places trust in its workers and offers them the authority that is required for their roles, most will rise to the challenge and act responsibly to honour and protect the company’s values.

Netflix CEO Wilmot Reed Hastings Jr. says that his company prides itself on high-performance staff and not management layers. As it grows, he will simply add more high-performance staff… not more layers.