Battling the red monster – another success story

Once upon a time, there was a university in one of the largest Polish towns. Among its many organizational units was Institute of Applied Physics (details altered and sanitized for confidentiality), headed by an internationally accomplished Polish professor who believed that scientists should spend most of their time and effort on science, and not on reporting. He made no secret of his views when he was appointed Director of the Institute, which must have come as a shock to many a seasoned bureaucrat in the university Head Office. These people were firm supporters and eager practitioners of the Parkinson’s observation that Officials make work for each other. Being good officials, they felt it was their duty to ensure that the professor and his fellow physicists received their fair share of useless and time-consuming paperwork to be done. Once filled, the lengthy report forms would be sent back to Head Office, like some kind of symbolic tribute paid by a vassal to his lord.

The professor didn’t like the idea, however. He reviewed all the reports that had been customarily prepared before and told his colleagues that from now on, they were free to ignore most of them and prepare only those which were reasonably legitimate. For example, documenting how a grant budget had been used was obviously a legitimate thing to do. Then again, common sense was the new axiom, which meant that it was no longer necessary to give all the technical specifications of a PC purchased within a project. As you can imagine, the scientists were more than happy to focus on their core work. It is noteworthy that the abandoned activities were not really mandatory tasks (as implied by the university administration), but rather, a collection of unwritten rules which had grown larger and larger over the years and which nobody had the courage to challenge. In the language of lean, these activities constituted waste. To continue with the ancient analogies, if the Institute was the Augean stables, then the professor was Hercules, and the heap of the useless reports was, well, I am sure the reader will have figured it out by now.

Interestingly enough, the bureaucratic monster couldn’t live without the reports. This is probably because the officials realized that soon their jobs could be at risk – less reports should mean fewer people needed to manage them, after all. They were so desperate that in order to mitigate this risk, they actually fabricated some of the missing reports themselves. A friend of mine who kindly shared this story told me that one day he was greatly amused to discover a report on computer hardware stock-taking which was signed by himself. The amusing part was that he had never seen the report before, and that his signature was forged.

The professor knew that most Head Office officials didn’t speak any foreign languages and used it to make the institute even more impervious to requests for reports (and perhaps to add insult to the injury). Namely, when the time came to appoint an Institute employee as the single point of contact (regarding reporting duties) with the university Head Office, of all the potential candidates, he chose a Dutchman. Unfortunately, even though the man spoke several languages, Polish was not one of them.

As in the two previous stories, genuine leadership was demonstrated when sound judgement was combined with brave actions. It is noteworthy that when confronted, the much-feared red tape monster turned out to be a harmless paper tiger, to such an extent that – if you don’t mind the pun – it let its opponent shove the paperwork down his throat.

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