Red Tape – Are Your Workflows Worth The Cost?
Who Am I?
So, what is red tape? But first a little bit of background about me. My names Carlos and I’m a data guy. I started off as an analyst with a smaller firm that sold non passenger car tires. Think wheelbarrow tires. Next came Michael Kors, a luxury fashion brand valued somewhere around ~7ish billion dollars. I spent about a year there as an analyst. That was followed by a short stint in the healthcare industry immediately followed by 3 amazing years at Netflix which has a valuation around 85 billion dollars. I left Netflix around a year back for a new adventure at Reddit.
So, I’ve been around. I’ve dabbled in healthcare, luxury fashion, the film industry, and most recently social media. I’ve worked with big firms, small firms, medium firms, etc.
What is Red Tape?
So, what do I mean when I say red tape? Red tape for me, is useless process that drives no value. Having name tags to get in the building isn’t red tape, that’s to keep employees safe. Is having to use a VPN red tape? Sometimes. But processes that keep the firms IP and data safe are not Red Tape. Red tape isn’t the end all be all argument against things you don’t like. Red tape is process that no one can logically explain the value of. Sometimes red tape workflows actually deliver value but it’s tiny when compared to their cost.
Example Of Red Tape
My personal favorite example of red tape in my career was when I had to get leadership approval for a new laptop charger. I had to get a VP to rubber stamp a document that said an analyst in their org needed a charger to do their job.
Let’s work this out. I needed a $30-$45 laptop charger. The process was kicked off with me reaching out to IT. IT followed up with a form that needed to be rubber stamped by my leadership team. I didn’t need my manager’s approval, I needed my VPs. A couple days after shooting the form over, it came back to me with approval. Someone came by my desk a couple days later with a laptop charger. Let’s say I made minimum wage ($12). They paid me $96 each day ($12*8hrs) I didn’t have a laptop to sit around. They paid my VP to sign a random document that said their analyst could have a laptop charger. They paid IT to ask for a random form and probably file that form. This is red tape.
Hundreds of dollars lost for what reason? What was the added benefit of that workflow? Maybe they were concerned employees would steal laptop chargers? Sure. But why were they hiring people they didn’t trust?
Example of No Red Tape
Let’s keep talking about chargers. We can contrast the no trust high friction model with a more successful model. One of the firms I worked at had tech stations that contained headphones, phone chargers, laptop chargers, mice (meese?), etc. Pretty much everything you could need to be productive was just laying around for anybody at the firm to walk up and grab. There was no sign out sheet. I didn’t need to bring the headphones back. They trusted their employees to know when they needed a charger. They saved oodles of cash by avoiding useless process and made oodles of cash by enabling their employees to be productive. Every hour you free up for your employees is another hour that can be driven back into improving the product and making your customers happy. Every hour you spend on process is another hour taken away from making your product THE best.
Red tape doesn’t always get created by a manager on a power trip. People generally have good intentions. In my short tenure in the corporate world I’ve seen that red tape is often times overcorrections to negative experiences or that they are relics of a different time that people don’t question as the company scales/grows.
What’s appropriate for your firm today might not be what’s appropriate for your firm tomorrow. Let’s set the stage for a hypothetical. So let’s say Carlos launches a firm out of his garage and hires a single employee. The first year or two are out of the garage of his personal home. He establishes with his employee that he wants to be alerted when his only employee wants to come into the office aka his garage. Assuming the only other person working at Carlos’ company doesn’t come into the pseudo office often and has a direct line to Carlos, this isn’t a crazy ask. Carlos wants to preserve a tiny bit of privacy in his personal home. Is this red tape? No. We can directly point to why the rule is in place.
Now skip ahead a couple years into the future. There was success on Carlos and team’s first product release. They were so successful that they were able to hire two more people and move into a proper office.
The team reviews their onboarding document where it explicitly says, “contact Carlos before coming into the office.” So before coming into the stand alone office, the team reaches out to Carlos to let him know they’re coming in. He sends back a 👍 and they move on. As the company continues to scale and Carlos and team continue to hire, the texts increase. Carlos gets to the texts less quickly leaving people waiting for a response before jumping into their cars. Is this red tape? YES. 100%. How do these texts help anybody?
In an ideal world one of these new hires would ask why the texts were necessary, leadership would welcome the pushback, folks would identify this as a relic of the old world, and the obsolete workflow would go extinct freeing everybody up to come into the office as they see fit to tackle their work.
What would be even better is if leadership identified the obsolescence themselves without prompting, but it’s hard to call these things out when you’re in the weeds. Being open to feedback is the key here.
Relic #2 – In Case the Hypothetical Above Didn’t Drive The Point Home
Let’s explore another example/hypothetical of some red tape that can find it’s roots in what once made sense. Let’s say your business has been around for a long while. In the past, to keep the lines of communication open with customers, you’d grab their physical address so you could mail them information or sales. Queue the information age where people move to e-mailing, texting, slacking, im’ing, dm’ing, tiktok messaging, etc.
Now, let’s say It’s still a requirement that sales try to get the physical address of their customers headquarters. Sales spends hours chasing a phsycial address that nobody knows. Customers are saying that they’d be happy to give them senior leadership’s contact info, personal phone numbers, etc but no. Our guidelines say that a physical address is needed. Red tape, red tape, red tape.
This is an interesting one. I’d typically think of red tape as something blocking me from getting shit done. Here, gathering addressess isn’t explicitly stopping our sales team from getting shit done, but it’s wasting their time from pursuing more customers. It’s not realizing that the worlds changed and moving the business accordingly. The address is an unquestioned part of an 1985 workflow that got us to where we are today.
An interesting part of what got us to where we are today is that it will not get to where we want to go. That’s a book. Haven’t read it. I imagine it doesn’t suck. I mean the titles good.
So what should folks do? Dump the address requirement. Get people’s emails or phone numbers and move on!
How can we avoid red tape to begin with?
You can’t! Or not really. Not that you should accept it as part of life. But red tape happens. Just make sure to support an open work environment . There’s nothing bad about red tape making it into your workflows. The shameful part is red tape denial or rationaliztation that eats away at your firm’s productivity in the long term. Looking for a more technical article? Check this out. Have thoughts? Feel free to comment.
These opinions do not reflect the opinions of any of the firms where I’ve worked or which I work for. Anecdotes are a helpful way to drive points home.