Business Process Reengineering: Newest Fad, or Revolution in Government?

By Linden, Russ | Public Management, November 1993 | Go to article overview

Business Process Reengineering: Newest Fad, or Revolution in Government?


Linden, Russ, Public Management


Not Just A Quick Fix

There is a new management trend coming, and if managers have not heard about it, they will soon. Its proponents call it a revolution in the way institutions are organized. Its skeptics call it the latest in a long line of alphabet-soup fads dished up by management consultants, from MBO to PPBS to ZBB to TQM. Whether managers consider it a revolution or a fad, they need to learn about business process reengineering, or BPR, because it is different, and many people think it will permanently change the way managers organize their institutions. Consider the following:

* In Napa County, California, applicants for public assistance once had to wade through endless forms, long waits, and many interviews in a process that took eight hours just to determine eligibility for coverage. The staff complained of writer's cramp, and everyone knew that the system was hopelessly out of date. The process has been "reengineered." After integrating its various social service programs, substituting an automated system for the myriad forms, and using an "interactive" interview conducted by cross-trained case workers, Napa County reduced the waiting time for applicants from eight hours to a few minutes.

* In one small city, budget staff members did a study of the purchasing process and learned that they often spent $150 or more of staff time to make a $5 purchase. The city reengineered the process. Now, departments are given responsibility to make all small purchases.

Each department has been issued a bank credit card and an approved list of vendors. For all purchases under $1,000 with these vendors, there are no requisition forms, no purchase orders, no sign-offs or hand-offs. Staff members are able to buy what they need, when they need it, at a competitive cost. Each month, the bank sends the finance department a tape of all city transactions, allowing the city to reconcile purchases against its own general ledger system. The result: purchases are made promptly, equipment does not sit idle for lack of small parts, and the city estimates that it is saving thousands of dollars. The savings in staff time can not even be calculated.

Some reengineering examples, such as those above, may appear to be nothing more than quick fixes, changes that should have been made long ago. But to draw this inference misses the point. Whether reengineering is for you or not (and it is not for every locality), it is not a quick fix. Rather, it is a fundamentally new way to think about and structure organizations.

From Function to Process: A Radically Different Way to Organize

Since the Industrial Revolution, we have organized most large enterprises much as Henry Ford designed his assembly line in Highland Park, Michigan: along functional lines, with jobs broken down into small, repetitive steps. The people, like the parts, were standardized and interchangeable. Ford was looking for efficiency, not creativity. ("You're not paid to think; we'll do the thinking around here," he said to one laborer.) The point was to drive down costs and make each unit accountable. His system certainly achieved those objectives. Most large organizations, public and private, have been modeled along similar lines.

Since the Reform Era, government has taken bureaucracy one huge step further. To combat the graft and corruption that was rampant in many governments, institutional changes led to centralized staff functions (accounting, finance, personnel, etc.) and to such oversight boards as civil service commissions. This development resulted in far less corruption, at the cost of an ever-growing bureaucracy. Rather than simply giving a task to a worker, employers have learned how to pay people to check others, who check others, who check others. Workers spend more time accounting for what is done than actually doing anything. And every time there is a major problem, additional checks, layers, and procedures are created.

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