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How to Respect Red Tape and Encourage Continuous Improvement

The Case for Red Tape

If you work for a government agency, you know red tape intimately. It is bureaucracy at its finest.

Red tape gets a bad rap, but it serves a useful purpose. I know it is counter-intuitive, but red tape is meant to make our lives easier and our services more efficient. It comprises all the processes, procedures and policies that will fit most situations, so we don’t have to spend energy trying to recreate the wheel on every case. It frees up time and energy and delivers predictable outcomes.

But sometimes red tape has outlived its usefulness. We need to take a step back every so often to examine if the current red tape is still useful.

Respect Red Tape

Respect means seeking to understand whether or not you agree. Ask around, looking to see if the red tape is a fence around a land mine or a guard rail for a street that no longer exists. Respect is the necessary companion of continuous improvement. Continuous improvement is an attitude that, when applied respectfully, helps you or a group move more efficiently and effectively towards your goals. We serve the public, and red tape is a means to that end. So, we must continuously ask ourselves if the means continue to get us to the ends in the most efficient way. We need to be nimble and grounded; we also need to be flexible about the means and stubborn about the ends.

Interrogate Red Tape

Before trying to remove a step in a process or a perceived barrier, you should ask why it exists in the first place and if that need still exist. You don’t want to knock down a proverbial load-bearing wall! Below is a simple and tangible example of how to interrogate the tape.
I was deployed to the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) a few years ago to support the deployments for Hurricane Maria. I was only available for one week, a relatively short deployment. The EOC was just getting up and running, so many of the needs were administrative, like confirming  volunteers and checking certifications. It was a small EOC with about seven people at any given time. But the office had regular visitors from outside the EOC team because there was a wireless copy machine in it. Sometimes, the grind of the printer would disrupt meetings or people would walk in the room despite the door being closed to pick up a document.
The team complained  for nearly two days before I asked,” Why is the printer in here anyway?” They gave me a nebulous backstory about how it was needed a year or so ago. I asked, “Is it still needed for that purpose or any other?” They all replied “no.” I checked-in with the manager and get similar answers. “Can we move it?” I asked. “Yeah, just contact the PC Doc to have it moved,”  he said.
And the rest is history. The printer was moved the next day, which increased productivity. Questioning something as simple as the presence of a vestigial printer made a big difference.

Replace or Reinforce Red Tape

When a specific piece of red tape proves its worth after a respectful interrogation of its value, then reinforce it, don’t demean or cut it. However, if the red tape no longer serves its intended purpose, cut it or replace it from the root. If the practice doesn’t fit the policy, you need to change the policy to fit the practice or reinforce the policy to change the practice.

Tip: A few questions to ask are below before you cut red tape. If the response to any of these questions is some version of, “Because that is how it has always been done,” dig deeper. Even if it is decided that the red tape should stay, at least you understand why.

1. Does this red tape serve a particular purpose?

2. Is it still needed for that purpose or any other?

3. Is there a better way to meet the purpose?

4. What impacts can be expected if it is cut or if it stays?

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Nefertiti is a Supervisory Life Scientist for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). She is passionate about employee engagement, mentoring and helping people and groups achieving their goals. Her leadership mantra is, “Prioritize people. Simplify processes. Celebrate progress.” In her free time, she enjoys reading, drawing and writing. Nefertiti is the mother of a curious and compassionate seven-year-old, with whom she enjoys rediscovering the world.

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