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In 1996 I decided to look into the ways that Microsoft, a big advocate of replacing paper with electronic forms, was still using paper. To my surprise, we had printed 350,000 paper copies of sales reports that year. I asked for a copy of every paper form we used. The thick binder that landed on my desk contained hundreds and hundreds of forms.

Paper consumption was only a symptom of a bigger problem, though: administrative processes that were too complicated and time-intensive. Using our intranet to replace paper forms has produced striking results for us. We have reduced the number of paper forms from more than 1,000 to a company-wide total of 60 forms.

Companies talk about rewarding initiative and keeping workers focused on business. When employees see a company eliminate bottlenecks and time-draining routine administrative chores from their workdays, they know the company values their time--and wants them to use it profitably.

An acquaintance of mine had an uncle who spent 25 years at an auto plant in Flint, Michigan tacking chrome strips and other finish parts onto automobiles. It was a good job in the years immediately after World War II, but it followed the classic Industrial Age approach: break a process into small, discrete tasks and assign each to one person who does it over and over "the one best way."

In the new organization, the worker is no longer a cog in the machine but is an intelligent part of the overall process. Having people focus on whole processes allows them to tackle more interesting, challenging work. A one-dimensional job (a task) can be eliminated, automated or rolled into a bigger process.

General Motors launched the Saturn Corp. back in 1985 to create not only a brand-new car from scratch but a brand-new way of building cars and empowering workers. Teams are tight, autonomous units. Each team has a specific function, such as building engines or doors, and each team member is trained to do approximately 30 different jobs in that area, so that people don't get stale from doing repetitive tasks. Through a Web interface, the worker can retrieve data from a database, automatically load the data into a spreadsheet and pivot through the data to analyze it by part and type of problem.

Give your workers more sophisticated jobs along with better tools, and you'll discover that your employees will become more responsible and bring more intelligence to their work. One-dimensional, repetitive work is exactly what computers, robots and other machines are best at--and what human workers are poorly suited to and almost uniformly despise. In the digital age, you need to make knowledge workers out of every employee possible.

Since Michael Hammer and James Champy introduced the concept of reengineering in 1993, companies the world over have been re-examining their business processes. When I read their book, Reengineering the Corporation, three of their ideas really stood out for me. The first is that you need to step back periodically to take a hard look at your processes. Do they solve the right problems? Can they be simplified? The second is that if you cut a job into too many pieces and involve too many people, nobody can see the whole process and the work will bog down. The third, closely related to the second, is that too many hand-offs create too many likely points of failure.

Creating a new process is a major project. You should have a specific definition of success, a specific beginning and end in terms of time and tasks, intermediate milestones and a budget. The best projects are those in which people have the customer scenario clearly in mind. That's true of process projects too.

Digital technology makes it possible to develop much better processes instead of being stuck with variations on the old paper processes that give you only incremental improvements. You need to be flexible in the face of evolving requirements. You should have a crisp decision process to evaluate change, including a provision for re-evaluating your original project goals.

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April 19, 1999

Gates is hot on China for a reason

This edition's table of contents | TIME Asia home



U.S. secretary of state says China should be 'tolerant'

Philippine government denies Estrada's claim to presidency

Faith, madness, magic mix at sacred Hindu festival

Land mine explosion kills 11 Sri Lankan soldiers

Japan claims StarLink found in U.S. corn sample

Thai party announces first coalition partner


COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

CHINA: Despite official vilification, hip Chinese dig Lamaist culture

PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

WEB-ONLY INTERVIEW: Jimmy Lai on feeling lucky -- and why he's committed to the island state


COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

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