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The following article was written by Coleman Patterson and appeared in the Business section of the Abilene Reporter-News.

The method to avoid 'traffic jams' at work, August 25, 2006, 2D.

A road trip through a big city with highway construction is a cause of frustration and stress for many people.  Big cities are dependent upon their highway systems to move people in cars quickly and efficiently through the town and into surrounding areas.  When roads are under construction, the normally smooth flow of traffic gets congested, backed up, and delayed.  Many times, hurried drivers will try to find shortcuts around the points of congestion.  Some will exit the highways before the construction zones and overburden smaller streets that were not designed to handle heavy traffic.  In such cases, the normal flows of traffic on the smaller streets also become severely disrupted.

It is also common to see impatient drivers avoid merging into crowded lanes in order to progress as far as possible in less-congested closing lanes.  Often, the worst traffic congestion occurs in the area right before a lane closes and all of the drivers are forced to merge into a single lane.  Once the merge is complete, traffic typically moves along at a steady, but slower than normal, rate of speed.  One would think that if everyone merged when they first saw a “merge ahead” sign, that traffic could continue without stopping—the drivers who feel that they are exceptions to the rules and merge at the last possible moment create the traffic jams.

Max Weber described an organizational phenomenon similar to the highway transportation example.  Weber wrote in the heyday of the large, industrial organization.  The thinking that dominated organizational theory of that time centered on efficiency and rationality—it was a time when organizations were viewed as machines.  As machines, large-scale organizations had the abilities to perform repetitive processes in quick and efficient manners.  This was accomplished by analyzing tasks, establishing responsibilities, defining jobs, and creating workflows that quickly moved work through organizations.  To accomplish work in the quickest and most efficient way, all work should be organized and performed in the same invariant way.  Exceptions to given work processes create “jams” in the system and slow down the productive capabilities of the organization.  He called this principle of organization, bureaucracy.

Just as highway systems are designed to allow large numbers of vehicles to quickly move through a city, bureaucratic organizations are designed to process large amounts of work quickly and efficiently.  They work best when they are free of problems and when exceptions to rules do not arise.  People who drive significantly faster or slower than the flow of traffic on highways create jams on roads.  People and customers who require faster, slower, or special service from an organization likewise create blockages and stoppages in organizations.  When individuals feel that they are special or exceptions to the rules of operation, they harm the ability of the bureaucratic organization to work efficiently. 

The bureaucratic organization is extremely rational and demands attention to rules, impersonal interactions, standardization, and authority.  Although bureaucracy typically has a negative connotation in our society, it is still a valid model for structuring and processing work in large and complex organizations.

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