Lab managers can reduce overhead costs by reducing unnecessary bureaucracy. A rough rule of thumb is that larger laboratories tend to have more bureaucracy. Staff members often find their productivity increases substantially when they change jobs and go to work for smaller companies that hold fewer meetings and have fewer time-sapping bureaucratic measures in place. While this rule of thumb generally holds true it doesn't have to. Even at large companies, managers can take steps to reduce the number and length of meetings and make them more productive.

Controlling meetings

One of the main tools of bureaucrats is meetings. I still remember going into a lab to talk to a coworker about some rush customer service work as the chemist rushed out of the lab. "I can't work right new," he said. "I have to go to a meeting." The subject? Reducing the number of quality assurance meetings.

Effect of decision-making

Bureaucracy tends to mire decisions in lengthy discussions in an attempt to achieve consensus and reduce risk. Hence, more meetings. The phrase:"paralysis by analysis" comes to mind. (The phrase may have been first uttered by Harold S. Geneen, CEO at ITT, formerly International Telephone and Telegraph.) Walt Disney, a pretty creative guy, put it a different way when he said, "The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing." Often this means quit having meetings to discuss matters by deciding on a course of action and then implementing it.

Staff members seldom like bureaucracy (unless they themselves are the bureaucrats). Schedule a long meeting and staff members go home at the end of the day frustrated because they accomplished relatively little due to the time invested in the meeting. Alternatively, they work longer hours to get something done – also a source of frustration.

An opportunity to reduce bureaucracy

Think about how you fit into the new organization, advised Mike Kahn, senior recruiting manager for Hunter + Sage, a Houston firm specializing in placing human resource professionals in jobs. As a result of layoffs, people have left, but many of their duties still have to be done. Staff reductions provide an opportunity to restructure the way work gets done and improve productivity.

For example, the recession has forced many oil producers to delay projects, merge units and reduce staffing to protect dividends in anticipation of higher prices in the years ahead. "We are stripping away layers and overlaps to add more value and that means fewer people," Shell Chief Executive Officer Peter Voser said in a statement to stock analysts. These changes include oil company laboratories. Similar changes are occurring in the laboratories of other industries.

Effective meetings

Excessive numbers and length of meetings often reduce productivity (and employee frustration if they do not see meetings as accomplishing a clear purpose). Meetings often turn into vehicles for extended discussion rather than as opportunities for effective decision making. They lack purpose, the right people aren't there, or the decision maker isn't at the table, said Paul Rogers, one of the authors of Decide & Deliver: 5 Steps to Breakthrough Performance in Your Organization (Harvard Business Review Press). So instead of making a decision, the meeting turns into an endless debate, said Rogers, managing partner of London-based consulting firm Bain & Co. Excessive numbers of meetings and overly long meetings are often a symptom of excessive bureaucracy.

The key to effective meetings is that each must have a clear goal, and participants who go away with specific responsibilities. Then these individuals must be held accountable for following through in a timely manner, Sullivan said.

We'll discuss ways to restructure work processes to reduce staffing requirements in future blogs. Interestingly, developments in this regard by the U.S. Navy may provide moddels for lab managers.