Tuesday, September 22, 2015
Bureaucracies and workarounds
When your job involves a bureaucracy there often are ways to work around pesky restrictions.
Early this month on the Shark Tank blog at Computerworld there was an article titled Now that’s our kind of emergency! It described one software developer’s experience with the bureaucracy at a railroad.
Approval for installation of new software normally involved an elaborate process calling for signatures from the project lead, the development manager, and a variety of other managers. Also, approval had to be done by noon on a Monday, since installs only were done on Wednesday nights.
But there also was an Emergency Install process that involved mostly the project lead (or alternatively a senior analyst) and one simple form. Better yet, emergency installs could be done at any time. Eventually almost half of all installs were being done on an emergency basis. Did management step in to fix the broken normal process? Of course not! Instead a memo went out stating:
"Effective immediately, all emergencies must be scheduled at least 48 hours in advance."
Four decades ago I experienced an effective workaround done by a noncommissioned officer (NCO). From 1972 to 1978 I was a medic in the Air Force Reserve. That began with spending the second half of 1972 on an active duty tour that was planned to include basic training and tech school, and finish with a month of on-the-job training (OJT). I still had plans to start graduate school at Carnegie-Mellon University in early January.
My orders originally called for OJT in the hospital at Scott Air Force Base, east of St. Louis. By the time I got there after the first week of December the schedule had slipped for a variety of reasons. I wrote my reserve unit a letter asking if if was still supposed to be there for a month.
After another week they called the NCO who handled ward administration for medics at the hospital, and told him my orders just had been amended to immediately send me back to my reserve unit in Pittsburgh. But those written orders got hung up in the pre-Christmas mail. The ward administration NCO took me off his weekly schedule. That left me hanging around the dormitory for medics.
For almost a week I was in limbo, mopping floors and doing other odd jobs as needed there. Then that NCO saw I was still there. He said, OK enough of this crap, we are going to get you home for Christmas via Verbal Order of Commander. He called Pittsburgh and got the only important feature from my orders - the charge codes saying what accounts should pay for my travel. A few hours later I took workaround paperwork he’d filled out to the travel section, and was given a plane ticket. Problem solved.
A Google search led me to a detailed 2014 magazine article by Steven Alter in the Communications of the Association for Information Systems titled Theory of Workarounds.