Compliance does not mean red tape

May 3, 2024

If compliance means red tape in your organisation chances are you have a business context or compliance driver problem. Traditionally the easiest way to enforce anything is to say no or burden people and processes with complex tasks and requirements making most efforts to get things done wasted. This often falls into the lower end of the hierarchy of controls, admin or protective controls (saying no or do not do does not eliminate the hazard!). (For more information about the hierarchy of controls and its use in compliance see this post – Compliance, Hierarchy of Controls). 

Thankfully the autocratic management of compliance has somewhat evolved in many places but the legacy of this management style and decisions is still widely seen and used – from forms and paper, single points of decisions (and failure), top down command and systems that are not monitored (or some cases even used).

Let go back to what red tape is and why it exists. 

 Red tape, according to historians, was originally used by some governments several hundred years to bind important documents to ensure these where dealt with priority – as opposed to general documents or admin that was bond by normal string. Red tape initially signified importance and priority. Over the years the practice of binding official documents and government papers became common practice across many governments and industries – to signify importance. These same documents also were the rules, bureaucratic processes and procedures existed. As time went on the basics of government rule and order established itself – the changes were merely additions – hence over time the red tape binding become the excessive bureaucracy or “computer says no” we know it for today. 

Rules like compliance often start simple. CREATE example to highlight i.e. building a house…. This example shows overtime the rules and regulations can become burdensome, complex and full of “red tape”!

The red tape reaction is seen over and over again and can be an immediate (or knee jerk) response to a disaster, failure or issue. The problem is when something is implemented as a short term solution – it should be just that until a longer term and permanent solution is created. This is where holistic compliance comes in – compliance is not just ensuring what you are doing is what you say you are doing, but also making sure its efficient and effective. Compliance activities can be (often are) the most information rich and holistic view of a piece of an organisation, why not use this information to improve and make better decision. Compliance is part of the improvement framework and a fundamental piece to most businesses – its often just not thought of as such and hence associated with red tape…. 

To get the most out of your compliance activities – I would recommend everyone look at recently updated ISO standards (9001, 27001, 55001 etc), particularly chapter 10 often clause 2 or 3 – compliance to these standards high lights improvement is imperative – showing compliance is not about red tape but finding what is not working and developing new ways to improve, continuously. If your compliance activities is more red tape than improvement – you are wasting time and money, changing your mindset will open up new opportunities for you and your business. 

As a side note, if certification or compliance to a standard is a contractual requirement from a customer or supplier, you may say this is red tape – you may be correct or may not understand the context for their requirements, it’s worth asking the question to ensure you are working towards the same outcome and not caught in another parties internal bureaucracy or “red tape” processes (which if this is the case if likely to change with the next trigger event, ensuring you jump through the next hoop). If you are in this position – take it as an opportunity to improve your processes and systems (even automating your compliance activities where possible) or reconsider your options – compliance burden and red tape without value can sink a business.