Workarounds as Evidence of Broken Processes

I work for a culture (the Air Force) that prides itself on innovation and a mission-first approach. However, in a long-term work project involving process mapping and process design for an internal customer, I’ve also noticed a culture of workarounds driven by several factors: 1) obsolete yet required forms; 2) lack of concrete guidance from higher headquarters on implementing their regulatory directives; 3) lack of oversight from higher headquarters; 4) an unclear transition from a competitively sourced operation governed by commercial standards in a Performance Work Statement to a military unit governed by stricter Air Force compliance standards; and 5) lack of knowledge among their base stakeholder groups about how this organization affects them. All of these factors contribute to what I call a “Sgt Bilko” approach to things: personal relationships, verbal handshakes, informal networks, workarounds, and no documented standard work to getting their work requirements completed.

Rather than merely penalize a Sgt Bilko organization for not complying with official guidance, a better approach would be to ask why did they rely for so many years on such an approach. Is the Sgt Bilko phenomenon I see in this organization evidence that the official processes, forms, and regulations might just be broken and need to be addressed? Also, does the innovative mission-first culture of the Air Force perversely incentivize organizations and members to break the official rules in order to get the mission done? I suspect the answer to both questions is Yes.

Am I alone in observing this throughout the government?

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Mark Hammer

I think it is a very astute observation.

The challenge to be faced strikes me as one of regularly taking a step back to re-examine process and unintended obstacles to efficiency, but balancing that against the chaos that ensues when regs and process change/adapt too often, and start to demand too much time and money set aside for learning and knowledge transfer.

Working in an oversight agency, I’m fond of reminding my colleagues that sometimes what makes for great common-sense policy makes for lousy inefficient incomplete monitoring, but what makes for efficient and easy monitoring may make lousy obstructive policy. The trick is finding a good balance, but more importantly, maintaining that balance, even as circumstances change.