Few phenomena are more destructive to the efficient and effective operation of an organization than cruft. Usually referring to software code, cruft refers to the accumulation of the obsolete, the redundant and often the detrimental, over-incremental development. It is usually easier and cheaper to increase on that which already exists rather than starting from scratch, and so naturally this is often what happens. The effects of cruft are usually fairly harmless annoyances such as slightly suboptimal performance or unintuitive features. Unfortunately, as complexity grows and new systems are built to rely on older underlying systems, the impact of cruft
Anyone who remembers the endless frustrations that came with using older Windows like ME or Vista have felt the force of cruft firsthand. But cruft can be far more devastating than a random blue screen of death and the loss of hours of work. One great example of the widespread damage cruft can cause was the Y2K bug. Operating systems of the day were constructed on top of older infrastructure created decades earlier when physical memory was a precious commodity. Representing the year of a date with two digits instead of all four was crucial when early low-level languages like COBOL were created in the mid-twentieth century. Even then, some computer scientists recognized that this practice would be problematic at the turn of the century. Despite this, software that was developed later built upon the older systems rather than replacing them, and the convention of saving dates with two-digit years was carried into the new systems that utilized and communicated with the older ones. In the end, according to the BBC, the Y2K bug cost well over $400 billion. That is greater than the GDP of countries below the 27 richest. This should serve to illustrate the devastating power of cruft, even when it boils down to something as trivial as whether a computer stores dates with a two- or four-digit year.
Remember that a computer program ultimately boils down to a set of rules and instructions. Now imagine a program that is vastly more influential, pervasive and critical to our daily lives than anything based in a computer – even with today’s prevalence of computer- and Internet-based just about everything. Imagine a program that has been undergoing iterative development for hundreds, not tens, of years. Imagine a vast ecosystem of these programs that all interact with each other in a dizzyingly and incomprehensibly complex manner. Can you guess what I am writing about? Have you ever wondered why the U.S.Code (containing permanent federal laws) runs to over 200,000 pages? Just how long is the Code of Federal Regulations (containing permanent federal rules and regulations)? According to Archives.gov, “A full set of the CFR consists of approximately 200 volumes.” None of this includes any laws or rules below the federal level. Which, depending where one happens to be, where they live and with whom they might interact, can include multiple states, counties and municipalities. There is even more when we consider organizational regulations to which any given person might be subject.
I hope that the parallels are becoming obvious. Most of us have heard of
silly-sounding laws that are still in effect, such as it being illegal to carry an ice cream cone in one’s pocket while walking about on Sundays in New York. Over the years and in response to changing circumstances, the institutions that govern our lives evolve and grow. As they do, they accumulate cruft at an alarming rate. “But,” you say, “So what? Isn’t this inevitable?” To some extent, of course it is. Certainly our governments wouldn’t like the idea of starting from scratch every so often. And that really points towards the heart of the problem. What is in the interest of a governing organization (from here on out I will call them bureaucracies, since these principles apply to every bureaucratic institution that I have yet encountered) is often at odds with those who are subject to it. Even more insidiously, what is in the interest of the bureaucrats is often even further removed from those they supposedly serve
If I am a career bureaucrat, I have a vested interest in my career. It would be counter to my self-interest to take a risky action that might greatly serve my constituents. For anyone who has not worked in a large bureaucracy, here are some extremely risky behaviours: innovation; creativity; efficiency; effectiveness. There are many reasons why such positive behavior can be negative in a bureaucratic context, but much of it boils down to inertia, internal competition for resources and political maneuvering. It is really this political maneuvering that I want to address. We have already identified behavior that bureaucrats tend to avoid in order to protect their careers from harm. But how do they advance their careers? By making their mark. Think of any high-level bureaucrat (politician, corporate executive, government officer, etc.). If he or she were at all successful then I am sure you can think of his or her signature. Some project, regulation or campaign that has become synonymous with his or her name. This is the secret of bureaucratic success. And this is perhaps the single greatest threat to lean, efficient organizations.
Let us take, for example, our student president’s recent campaign to institute a general smoking ban on campus. As recent articles have demonstrated, and my own experience corroborates, there is very little smoking on campus. I have seen (including myself) three students smoke on campus this entire semester. Three. I have observed one complaint directed towards a smoker, which was immediately accommodated. Clearly this is not a widespread problem with grassroots support. Who, then, would this proposed regulation benefit? Certainly not the smokers – they will likely smoke anyways. Not the general population, as they are not generally affected by smoking on campus to begin with. Perhaps the university would gain some small level of prestige (or notoriety) for becoming smoke-free, but then, the university did not propose this. The student government did. And it is the members of the student government that stand to benefit by having a successful project; by leaving a legacy. Something they can attach to their names.
I hope that this example will help shed some light on the motivations of our bureaucrats, corporate, governmental or otherwise. I hope that we all examine proposals with a critical eye, mercilessly identifying bureaucratic cruft wherever it may arise. And I hope that we push back against the inertia. Maybe we can’t stop cruft, but if we refuse to be sucked in by slick campaigns and groupthink, we just might slow it down a little bit. Better go grab an extra large soda while you still can.