Conditions of the Machine Bureaucracy

We began our discussion of the basic structure with the point that the work flow of the Machine Bureaucracy is highly rationalized, its tasks simple and repetitive. Now we can see that such machine bureaucratic work is found, above all, in environments that are simple and stable. The work of com- plex environments cannot be rationalized into simple tasks, and that of dynamic environments cannot be predicted, made repetitive, and so standardized.

In addition, the Machine Bureaucracy is typically found in the ma- ture organization, large enough to have the volume of operating work needed for repetition and standardization, and old enough to have been able to settle on the standards it wishes to use. This is the organization that has seen it all before and has established a standard procedure to deal with it. Machine Bureaucracies are clearly the second stage of structural development, as we described in Chapter 6, the consequences of Simple Structures that grow and age.

Machine Bureaucracies tend also to be identified with regulating technical systems, since these routinize work and so enable it to be for- malized. These technical systems range from the very simple to the moder- ately sophisticated, but not beyond. Highly sophisticated technical sys- tems require that considerable power be delegated to staff specialists, resulting in a form of decentralization incompatible with the machine bu- reaucratic structure. Nor can the technical system be automated, for that would do away with routine operating work and so lead to another config- uration. Thus, although the organization may make heavy use of mecha- nization and computers because its work is standardized, it remains a Machine Bureaucracy only as long as these do not displace a work force dominated by unskilled operators.

Mass-production firms are perhaps the best known Machine Bureau- cracies. Their operating work flows form integrated chains, open at one end to accept raw material inputs, and after that functioning as closed systems that process the inputs through sequences of standardized opera- tions until marketable outputs emerge at the other end. These horizontal operating chains are typically segmented into links, each of which forms a functional department that reports up the vertical chain of authority. Even in some enormously large mass-production firms, the economies of scale are such that functional structures are maintained right up to the top of the hierarchy. Likewise, in process production, when the firm is unable to automate its operations but must rely on a large work force to produce its outputs, it tends to adopt a functional Machine Bureaucratic structure.2

Figure 9-2 shows the organigram of a large steel company, functional right to its top level of grouping.

In the case of the giant Machine Bureaucracies, an interesting shift occurs in the relationship between environmental stability and structural formalization: the former becomes the dependent variable. These organiza- tions have great vested interests in environmental stability; without it, they cannot maintain their enormous technical systems. So whereas once upon a time they may have bureaucratized because their environments were stable, as they grew large they found themselves having to stabilize their environments   because    they   were   bureaucratic.    As   Worthy    notes, “. . . there were external pressures on the enterprise itself that had to be organized and controlled before scientific management could come into its own” (1959:76). Thus, giant firms in industries such as transportation, tobacco, and metals are well known for their attempts to control the forces of supply and demand—through the use of advertising, the development of long item-supply contacts, sometimes the establishment of cartels, and, as noted earlier, the envelopment of support services. They also adopt strategies of “vertical integration”; that is, they extend their production chains at both ends, becoming their own suppliers and customers. In this way, they are able to bring some of the forces of supply and demand within their own planning processes, and thereby regulate them. In effect, when it gets large enough, the Machine Bureaucracy can extend its control into its environment, seeking to regulate whatever out there can disturb its routine operations.

Of course, the Machine Bureaucracy configuration is not restricted to large, or manufacturing, or even private-enterprise organizations. Some small manufacturers—for example, certain producers of discount furniture and paper products—prefer this structure because their operating work is simple and repetitive. Many service firms—what we can call white-collar bureaucracies—use it for the same reason, even though their operations are not integrated into single chains. Strings of assembly-line workers are re- placed in the insurance company by grids of office clerks, in the telephone company by rooms of switchboard operators, in the bank by rows of tell- ers. The outputs of these service firms may differ from those of the facto- ries—as does the color of their workers’ collars—but their operating work, being equally routine and nonprofessional, is no less amenable to formal- ization. The large hotel, for example, lends itself to the machine bureau- cratic form because its structure is tied right into its permanent physical facilities. Once the hotel is built, its location and size, as well as the nature of its rooms (in effect, its product-market strategy), are largely fixed. There- after, its success depends primarily on how effectively it can regulate its operations to the satisfaction of its customers. Those customers have defi- nite expectations—not for surprise but for stability. Thus, a few years ago, one of the giant hotel chains ran a series of print advertisements under the theme, “At every Holiday Inn, the best surprise is no surprise.” In one, George J. Fryzyan III, business insurance consultant, exclaimed, “The room was clean. The TV worked. Everything worked. Amazing.” After more praise, he added, “It’s got something to do with those 152 standards at every Holiday Inn ” Machine Bureaucracies are well suited to ensur-ing that nothing can possibly go wrong.

One McGill MBA group studied a security agency with 1,200 part- time guards and nine full-time managers. The guards, paid at or near the minimum wage, were primarily older, retired men. Their work was ex- tremely routine and simple—for example, guarding school crossings and patrolling buildings after hours. Correspondingly, everything was abso- lutely routinized and the structure was remarkably bureaucratic. Uniforms were worn, ranks were used, a tight code of discipline was in force, a manual specified general regulations in minute detail, and each job also had its own equally specific regulations. And this formalization of behavior was not restricted to the guards. When the firm embarked on an acquisi- tion campaign, it drew up a procedure to evaluate candidates that seemed like a page out of its operations manual.

This organization was not a Machine Bureaucracy in the pure sense, since it lacked an elaborate administrative hierarchy. There were few mid- dle managers and almost no analysts. In effect, the tasks of the organiza- tion were so simple and stable that management itself could work the procedures out and then let them be, almost in perpetuity. Hence, there was no need for a technostructure. The structure was really a hybrid be- tween Simple Structure and Machine Bureaucracy, which we might call the simple bureaucracy: centralized, highly bureaucratic, but with no elaboration of the administrative structure. Thus, given extremely simple and almost perfectly stable work, the Machine Bureaucracy can shed most of its ad- ministrative component.

Another condition often found with many Machine Bureaucracies is external control. Hypothesis 14 indicated that the more an organization is controlled externally, the more its structure is centralized and formalized, the two prime design parameters of the Machine Bureaucracy. External control is often most pronounced in government agencies, giving rise to a common example of this configuration, which we can call the public machine bureaucracy. Many government agencies—such as post offices and tax col- lection departments—are bureaucratic not only because their operating work is routine but also because they are accountable to the public for their actions. Everything they do must seem to be fair, notably their treatment of clients and their hiring and promotion of employees. So they proliferate regulations.

Since control is the forte of the Machine Bureaucracy, it stands to reason that organizations in the business of control—regulatory agencies, custodial prisons, police forces—are drawn to this configuration, some-times in spite of contradictory conditions.3 These constitute a variant we call the control bureaucracy. Another condition that drives the organization to the machine bureaucratic structure is the special need for safety. Organi- zations that fly airplanes or put out fires must minimize the risks they take. Hence, these safety bureaucracies formalize their procedures extensively to ensure that these are carried out to the letter. Few people would fly with an airline that had an organic structure, where the maintenance men did whatever struck them as interesting instead of following precise checklists and the pilots worked out their procedures for landing in foggy weather when the need arose. Likewise, a fire crew cannot arrive at a burning house and then turn to the chief for orders or decide among its members who will connect the hose and who will go up the ladder. The environ- ments of these organizations may seem dynamic, but in fact most of their contingencies are predictable—they have been seen many times before— and so procedures for handling them have been formalized. (Of course, an unexpected contingency forces the crew to revert to organic structure.) We can also call organizations such as fire departments contingency bureau- cracies. They exist not to provide routine services, but to stand ready in the event of the need for nonroutine ones. But because these services are critical, the organizations must plan elaborate procedures to respond quickly and efficiently to every contingent event that can be anticipated. Their operators then spend their time practicing these procedures and waiting around for an event to occur, hopefully one of the contingencies anticipated.

Finally, we note that fashion is no longer a condition that favors the Machine Bureaucracy configuration. This structure was the child of the Industrial Revolution. Over the course of the last two centuries—particu- larly at the turn of this one—it seems to have emerged as the dominant configuration. But the Machine Bureaucracy is no longer fashionable. As we shall soon see, it is currently under attack from all sides.

Source: Mintzberg Henry (1992), Structure in Fives: Designing Effective Organizations, Pearson; 1st edition.

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