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Bust bureaucracy by liberating people to manage themselves

Can a company bust bureaucracy by liberating people to manage themselves? Simon Caulkin reports on an experiment that paid big dividends at Roche Pharmaceuticals.

Perhaps nowhere is the gap between management rhetoric and reality so wide as in the area of innovation. In theory, it is something that every company desires and values – and certainly needs. In practice, the obstacles put in the way of a process that is already fraught with difficulty and frustration are legion.

One of the clammiest of the dead hands is bureaucracy, and this was the focus of a group of Roche managers who met at London Business School in April 2009. The team consisted of Oliver Bleck, Nicolas Dunant, Sven Hauptmann, Paul Lambert, Kristen Pressner and Nathan Vaidyanathan, representing different geographic locations and six diverse areas within the Roche Pharmaceuticals business.

As a pharmaceutical firm, Roche has a mission that puts innovation at the heart of what it does. Without innovation, it can’t compete. And its perception was that red tape was absorbing too much energy. “We needed to think of something to tackle bureaucracy that we as a group felt was getting a bit out of control,” said Pressner, a manager in Roche’s Global Learning and Development. “There may have been good reasons for having bureaucratic processes in place; but in some cases those reasons may not be that useful any more.”

Big questions

Can insight take the place of bureaucratic oversight? Is it feasible to use radical transparency to dispense with bureaucracy without losing control? Is personal responsibility a substitute for external controls? These are big questions to which the Roche team believed that the answer had to be yes. Their intuition was that, not only are there alternatives to bureaucracy, there are also better ones – simpler, more aligned with Roche’s organisational values, motivating – and hopefully (but more contentiously) neutral on costs.

How to test their conviction? In designing an experiment, the team decided it needed to choose a process that people considered a pain (no problem there), that affected many, that was significant enough for people to take notice of the results and in which transparency was both applicable and reasonable. Obviously, it couldn’t be used on anything that was a statutory requirement. And it had to be an area in which they could see results quickly – in fact, they had time for an experiment that would run just three months.

Some of the processes the team discussed were the annual budget, timekeeping, flexible work arrangements and expat approvals. In the end, they settled on travel and expenses. That might not seem the sexiest call, but it had several advantages. After all, the team wanted to test a general hypothesis – that cutting bureaucracy was not only feasible, but desirable – and travel expenses ticked all the criteria. It certainly epitomised in fairly extreme form the misalignment of values that, psychologically as well as physically, drains professional effort and commitment. “I’m responsible for €60 million sales but need approval to buy a €3 cup of coffee,” as one participant manager summed up the general mood. As well, the team was startled to find that Roche Pharma’s annual travel budget adds up to 450 million Swiss francs – so the stakes were potentially higher than many people had expected.

A workable experiment

The next step was to set up a workable experiment. To ensure broad coverage and robust results, the team came up with an ingenious design comprised of two pairs of matched groups, one pair taken from the Basel headquarters, the other from a sales affiliate in Grenzach, Germany.

In each pair there were 50 people per group, so the sample consisted of 200 people in all. One group was used as a control, whose travel authorisation process continued to operate as usual – those participants had no change in their current process. The second group in each location, however, was told that (as part of the pilot project), their travel was to become self–authorised. Subject, of course, to normal company policy (who was entitled to travel business class and so forth), Roche employees would make the decision to travel for business and, via the Travel Department, book their flights and hotels, with no further approvals. The only proviso was that expense information would be transparent, posted on the Intranet for other employees to see.

In fact, transparency posed an interesting challenge for the whole initiative. German culture is extremely protective of privacy and private information. The Works Council would not only have to be informed but also would have to give its consent for personal information to go on the Web, and a number of people doubted whether permission would be forthcoming.

To their delight, however, and in a good augury for the future, the team persuaded the council to allow the experiment with only minor modifications. Instead of having information posted on a website, the Works Council preferred it be sent out by email. And rather than full transparency with individuals identified by name, the arrangement was a compromise in which slightly aggregated information would be visible to participants and line managers, but not to others.

In the event, the qualified German approval (as well as being an achievement in itself) added an extra layer of richness to the experiment. “There were now in effect three levels of transparency,” said Lambert. “We had the headquarters group in Basel, where we basically knew what every individual’s expenses were, line by line. In the middle, we had the German group, where they could see their own expenditure and almost like a peer group and what they were spending. But it was more opaque: they couldn’t see the details. And then we had the control group, which basically couldn’t see anything.”

Teams tested

The experiment was designed to test three things:

  1. Would people be more motivated by removal of the bureaucratic process of pre–authorisation?
  2. Was the new process simpler than before?
  3. And what would be the consequences for costs?

The first two were measured by before–and–after surveys. To avoid as far as possible the operation of a ‘Hawthorne effect’ (people working harder and better because they know they are being watched as part of an experiment), the team had taken care to downplay the experimental nature of the project. The two groups were simply told that “two or three departments had been selected for a pilot project; it would start on that day; these are the changes, and wait for further information. We kept it very low key, which actually caused some confusion with the line managers. But we thought that would be better than telling them, ‘Hey, you’re part of a really exciting experiment’ and then we’d be fully into Hawthorne,” said Hauptmann.

As the team was quick to realise, however, transparency had certain parallels with being observed. So would people take it as a kind of Big Brother experience? In that case, motivation might end up damaged instead of boosted, as they had cautiously hoped. In the event, they were positively astonished by the response. Instead of the neutral to modest improvement expected, 45 per cent of participants said motivation had increased as a result of the changes, with another 46 per cent reporting no change.

“Our worry was what if motivation goes down, what if people hate having the information out on the Web somewhere?” said Pressner. “We thought we’d be lucky to score five per cent. How many people would you expect to be more motivated to work for a company based on just changing the travel process?”

The survey left no doubt: 83 per cent of the sample felt that the approach was better attuned with Roche values, and the same proportion wanted it adopted as normal procedure. Only a very small minority – six per cent – were uncomfortable with having their expenses available for others to see, and there was no significant difference in opinion between transparent and semi–transparent groups. Similarly overwhelming majorities (74 per cent and 87 per cent) reported that the new process was more efficient and took less time than the old one – “Inefficient approval process for travel; sometimes I have the feeling I work at a government authority,” was one heartfelt comment.

As to cost, the team had fully expected travel costs to go up with self–authorisation, potentially leaving members with the task of justifying the changes by pointing to the anticipated small positive effect on motivation. In fact, compared with the equivalent period in 2008, the expenses of the two experimental groups went down (one quite substantially), while totals of the two control groups were unchanged. This was something of a revelation. “I hope my expenses will motivate others to spend as little as I do.”

What next for this experiment? The team presented their findings to the Pharma Executive Committee in late 2009, and they got a terrific reception. They have been asked to propose an immediate rollout plan to key sites globally, together with their very supportive Project Sponsor, Hagen Pfundner, the General Manager of Roche Germany.

Simon Caulkin (www.simoncaulkin.com) was named UK Columnist of the Year at the 23rd Workforce Media Awards in January. He is the former management editor at The Observer.


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