Can a bureaucracy be lean?

We so often about “bloated bureaucracies” that the two words seem to belong together. Webster’s even uses the expression as a usage example in its definition of bureaucracy: “Both candidates pledge to simplify the state’s bloated bureaucracy.”

It might seem strange, then, that the sociologist Max Weber in his 1920 book The Theory of Social and Economic Organization, claimed that “experience tends universally to show that the purely bureaucratic type of administrative organization … is, from a purely technical point of view, capable of attaining the highest degree of efficiency and is in this sense formally the most rational known means of carrying out imperative control over human beings” (337). In his view bureaucracy was the application of knowledge and expertise rather than capriciousness in an organization. “Indeed, almost all the benefits we take for granted in today’s society—modern medicine, modern science, modern industry—rest on a bureaucratic foundation” (p233).

If the government bureaucracy is bloated, can it be un-bloated? What if we were to look at government processes through the lens of lean management technique? Could we apply Lean Startup ideas, and use Lean Software Development to IT needs, and take a Lean Six Sigma knife to the government? Could we trim out all of the waste? (What would be left then?)

I think maybe we can do this.


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