Red Tape Holds Up New Bridges (…or the VA)

by Carol Anderson, Featured Contributor

WE HAVE YET ANOTHER political catastrophe on our hands.  Those veterans who gave us our freedom have been duped by the bureaucracy – red tape – of their own government.

It reminds me of an email I saw once, with pictures of funny headlines that were actually mistakes.  This one was more profound than they probably realized….

Red Tape Holds Up New Bridges

(And the tag line was….You mean there’s something stronger than duct tape?)

Bureaucracy – red tape – is created by layers of leaders, mounds of paperwork, and a lack of real dialogue.  When real dialogue is neither encouraged nor rewarded, we end up with a culture of silence.  Those who need to know never hear what they need to hear. And yes, culture and bureaucracy are stronger than duct tape.

We certainly have an abundance of examples of how a culture of silence can damage an organization.

In 1986, Space Shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after takeoff because of the failure of one small part.  Any business school student knows that the culture of silencescam was the culprit.  NASA knew about the possible failure of the O-rings, but those making the “go” decision didn’t listen to the warning.

The healthcare industry is struggling to emerge from the culture of silence that has been blamed for hospital acquired infections and other quality breaches.  Their work involves creating psychological safety at all levels of staff, so that any caregiver can safely call others on a potential unsafe act.  Given the culture of hierarchy in healthcare, this is a huge challenge, and overwhelming change for the industry leaders.

Now we find clerks who worked at the Veteran’s Administration being told by supervisors to “zero out” the date that the Veteran asked to see a healthcare provider; to use the appointment date as the “requested date,” because “wait time” was one of the metrics used to determine if a VA hospital was, in fact, serving their constituencies effectively.

And apparently, the Director’s claim when he testified before Congress, was that he didn’t know.  I can believe that.

The Washington Post, on May 30, 2014, carried an excellent article on the culture of coverups at the VA.  According to author David Fahrenthold, the first unrolling of red tape at the VA was put in place to prevent another disaster after the first VA Head misappropriated agency funds.

After decades of layering on more bureaucracy, Ken Kizer stepped up to head the agency in the 1990s, and found that he had to approve a $12 purchase by a secretary.  He set out to dismantle the bureaucracy, and introduced a series of metrics so that the work of the caregivers could be reviewed but not micromanaged.

That’s a noble idea and theoretically sound.

Over time, the lower level supervisors’ bonuses were tied to the metrics!  And that would be an unintended result of a noble idea.

It isn’t enough for leadership to listen in this age of complexity.  I would propose that there is nothing more important than for a leader to ASK really hard, really pointed, and really probing questions.  And don’t just ask their direct reports.  Ask the people who are doing the work.

And the second most important role of a leader is to respond when given information.  Information is a gift – it isn’t always something a leader can change or likes to hear, but it is always the opportunity to continue open dialogue.

rippleThose decisions made over the decades at the VA were not necessarily bad decisions; they were most likely made in good faith response to a business need.  But organizations are complex systems, and one change to an organizational system will create ripples throughout.  Asking good questions, generating dialogue and rewarding open communication can help to see what impact those ripples are having.  And once you know, you can make adjustments.

What ripples are happening in your organization that you should know about?


Carol Anderson
Carol Anderson
CAROL is the founder and Principal of Anderson Performance Partners, LLC, a business consultancy focused on bringing together organizational leaders to unite all aspects of the business – CEO, CFO, HR – to build, implement and evaluate a workforce alignment strategy. With over 35 years of executive leadership, she brings a unique lens and proven methodologies to help CEOs demand performance from HR and to develop the capability of HR to deliver business results by aligning the workforce to the strategy. She is the author of Leading an HR Transformation, published by the Society for Human Resource Management in 2018, which provides a practical RoadMap for human resource professionals to lead the process of aligning the workforce to the business strategy, and deliver results, and writes regularly for several business publications.

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