Source: Mintzberg (1979, p. 325). Copyright ©1979. Reprinted by permission of Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, N.J.
Like other machine bureaucracies, McDonald’s deals constantly with tension between local managers and headquarters. Middle managers are heavily influenced by local concerns and tastes. Top executives, aided by analysts armed with computer printouts, rely more on generic and abstract information and pursue corporation-wide concerns. As a result, a solution from the top may not always match the needs of individual units. Faced with declining sales and market share, McDonald’s introduced a new food preparation system in 1998 under the marketing banner “Made for you.” CEO Jack Greenberg was convinced the new cook-to-order system would produce the fresher, tastier burgers the company needed to get back on the fast track. But franchisees soon complained that the new system led to long lines and frustrated customers. Unfazed by the criticism, Greenberg invited a couple of skeptical financial analysts to flip burgers at a McDonald’s outlet in New Jersey so they could see firsthand that the concerns were unfounded. The experiment backfired. The analysts concluded that the system was too slow and decided to pass on the stock (Stires, 2002). Greenberg was replaced at the end of 2002.
Beginning with the precepts of scientific management in the early twentieth century, recurring efforts have been made to improve public schools by getting them to work more like machine bureaucracies in which teachers are the production workers. The initiatives have included “teacher-proof” curricula, incentive pay schemes, and the use of test scores or yearly performance indicators to measure how well a school is doing. Teachers, in contrast, see themselves as professionals who need sufficient autonomy to use their experience and judgment in finding the best way for students to learn. They often prefer to work in an organization that mirrors another of Mintzberg’s types, the professional bureaucracy.
Harvard University affords a glimpse into the inner workings of a professional bureaucracy (see Exhibit 4.4). Its operating core is large relative to its other structural parts, particularly the technostructure. Each individual school, for example, has its own local approach to teaching evaluations; there is no university-wide profile developed by analysts. Few managerial levels exist between the strategic apex and the professors, creating a flat and decentralized profile.
Exhibit 4.4. Professional Bureaucracy.
Source: Mintzberg (1979, p. 355). Copyright ©1979. Reprinted by permission of Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, N.J.
Control relies heavily on professional training and indoctrination. Professionals are insulated from formal interference, freeing them to apply their expertise. Freeing highly trained experts to do what they do best produces many benefits but leads to challenges of coordination and quality control. Tenured professors, for example, are largely immune from formal sanctions. As a result, universities have to find other ways to deal with incompetence and irresponsibility.
A professional bureaucracy responds slowly to external change. Waves of reform typically produce little impact because professionals often view any change in their surroundings as an annoying distraction. The result is a paradox: individual professionals may strive to be at the forefront of their specialty, while the institution as a whole changes at a glacial pace. Professional bureaucracies regularly stumble when they try to exercise greater control over the operating core; requiring Harvard professors to follow standard teaching methods might do more harm than good.
In his efforts to achieve greater control over Harvard’s fractious faculty, new president Larry Summers quickly ran into predictable challenges of a professional bureaucracy. In one famous case, he suggested that superstar African American studies professor Cornel West redirect his scholarly efforts. Summers’s advice was given in private, but West’s pique made the front page of the New York Times. Summers’s profuse public apologies failed to deter the offended professor from decamping to Princeton. In professional bureaucracies, struggles between the strategic apex and the operating core are often won by the professionals, who are more tightly bonded to their field than to any specific institution. This is a lesson hospital administrators learn quickly in their dealings with physicians.