Just another little piece of paperwork…

I hate paperwork. I make no effort to conceal that fact. I hate paperwork for two reasons:

  1. It is bloody inefficient
  2. Much of it has no real benefit, to anyone, ever

I strongly suspect I am not alone. Pubmed is awash with publications showing a negative correlation between quantity of paperwork and nurse job satisfaction[1,2]. Yet that hasn’t stopped healthcare and indeed other industries from mounting paperwork upon employees. So how has this happened?

Whenever we find ourselves with a problem which has “snuck up on us”, the causes are probably multifactorial. This is true of paperwork. I reckon these are the main causes:

  1. The Scapegoat Signature Phenomenon
  2. Ivory tower management
  3. Form design fetishes
  4. “Me too” metrics
Meanwhile, somewhere in the administration building…


The Scapegoat Signature Phenomenon:
Most things we do in life will require us to take responsibility for the quality of our work. There are two inherent risks with doing stuff as opposed to sitting on your arse doing nothing:

i) some people might not like the stuff you have done out of personal taste; or,
ii) you might do the stuff really badly

Really, the only way to not have to take responsibility for anything is to do nothing (sit at home and watch Jeremy Kyle).

The problem is that the world is crawling with unreasonable people who like to piss and moan about everything, such as the aforementioned Jeremy Kyle watchers. They like to criticise the productive and the creative. If you do something, like make a video and put it up on Youtube, or write a blog, or design a product; anything, and expose it to enough people, someone is going to dislike what you’ve done.

The thing is, other complainants will be decent people and their complaints will fall into scenario ii and might well be valid. But differentiating between the two types of complaint requires a human being to apply some common sense.

Instead of applying common sense, many companies respond to the threat of inevitable complaints by creating forms which employees must complete as they go about their work. The forms serve one purpose: to identify an employee to automatically point the finger at if someone complains. Palm the responsibility off to a minion via a piece of paperwork.

That’s the Scapegoat Signature Phenomenon: create forms for employees to fill in and sign, so you know who you can blame when someone complains.


Ivory Tower Management:

At some point in the 20th Century, “Management” became a profession in itself. In days gone by, if you worked in a factory, the people managing you would be former factory floor workers who had been high performing and had shown leadership skills so got promoted. The obvious benefit is that those who were managers knew what they were managing inside-out because they had been there.

Nowadays, many sectors fill their management ranks with people who have no more experience than the a university MBA course. These people are taught the fads and habits of “how to manage” but nothing about what they are actually managing. They know all about Lean, RAG statuses, process maps and procedures, but don’t know the actual content to put into those systems. They get parachuted into an organisation which they know fuck-all about and are then faced with the task of managing it.

With no front-line experience to fall back on, the usual reaction is to try to understand the organisation by soliciting reports from the people below. So they create various forms so that their front-line staff can fill them in and report back what is going on in the organisation. Front-line staff then have to sacrifice half their productive time to filling in the report forms so management can begin to understand what the hell is going on.

Reports are a massive waste of resources. The most common result of a report is a manager looking at it (often superficially) and saying “huh, that’s interesting”, with no changes resulting from the report. Very often managers cannot be bothered to read the reports they solicit from below, so they call their staff into meetings to have them “present” their reports. Not only is management asking their staff to do their homework for them, they are outsourcing the reading of it too! Unsurprisingly this is not a successful method to understand an organisation.

There is a much better alternative: use people who have had front-line experience as managers. Have them go around floor-walking and chatting to the staff regularly. If you really need actual numbers, find a way to automatically measure them. Reports are for managers that don’t understand what they are managing. People who have been at the coalface before can simply use their eyes and ears.


Form Design Fetishes:

Creativity is missing from many jobs. It’s sad really. Unfortunately this means that people tend to go to town on any little creative outlet they get, and this is true of designing forms. Whenever there is a piece of information that might be worth capturing, few can resist the temptation of creating a form.

People in administrative offices love to design forms. Perhaps it is the novelty of being able to use the Word drawing toolbar, or the idea that they are able to control the actions of lots of workers for the next few months through the power of their tickboxes. The bigger and more complex the form, the better to these people.

After a festival of drawing boxes and textbox labels, they then proudly announce their new form to the workforce: “we have invented a tool”… “Tool” may be replaced with other euphemisms such as “bundle” or “pack”, but the purpose is the same: to big up their little piece of paper as though it is something more significant than a frustrating time-suck.

What usually happens is that this “tool” is merely another hurdle in the way of the front-line worker who must pause doing something value-adding, to scribble responses on the newly printed slice of dead tree. Tragically, most of these forms just get shoved into the bottom of a filing cabinet. If the data was actually going to be used, it would have been captured electronically where it’s easy to get at.

The result of someone’s little form design fetish one afternoon is many thousands of hours of staff time spent on doing something non value-adding. Just stop it please.


“Me too” metrics:

Organisations love to measure stuff. That’s fine, quantifying things can be the first step in optimising things and can help monitor performance. Such measurements are called “metrics” in management speak. The problem is that the majority of metrics are utterly useless, and many are “vanity metrics” which are measured to make people feel good but actually have no bearing on performance.

Whether it is “website hits”, “phone calls per hour”, or “meetings attended per week”, metrics should have a value-adding purpose. If a metric isn’t linked closely to profit or net benefit delivered, then it’s pointless. If there is nothing that can be done to influence a metric in the resolution of time in which it is being measured, then it’s also pointless. For example, a speedometer graphic showing you the number of patients waiting for a ward bed in the Emergency Department, updated every 10 minutes serves no purpose if you have no effective control over how ward beds are freed up.

Some metrics must be manually measured. They require employees to count up things, recording the information on a form to submit. That can be a lot of wasted staff time if the resultant metric doesn’t relate to output or is something management can’t do anything about.

A crazy trend has emerged where one organisation will measure something because its competitor is also measuring that something, or because another completely different industry measures it. I have seen HR offices closely tracking the volume of biros ordered every month, because factories track the quantity of raw materials coming in. I have seen charts of “cost of bread versus week” pinned up in a hospital ward kitchen, because some silly sod thought that using up man-hours to track an approx £80 weekly expenditure was a priority in an organisation which spends £250m per annum.


My solution:

So, I have “invented a tool”, to help you decide whether the next piece of paperwork you’re about to tackle is worth spending your brain cycles on… I call it the Brooks Test:

Bullshit Paperwork Detector

(P.S. I am a manager of a software company. I am also a hypocrite.)



  1. Tuckett C. Time to sweep aside the tyranny of paperwork. Nurs Stand. 2016 Mar 2;30(27):24-5. doi: 10.7748/ns.30.27.24.s23.
  2. Kennedy R. Free ward sisters from the tyranny of paperwork. Nurs Times. 2009 Nov 10-16;105(44):27.

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