The paperwork that corporations have created to keep their wheels turning can be mind-boggling.
Take Cigna Corp.The big insurance company maintains 3,000 to 4,000 forms to handle routine company business. From petty-cash requests to purchase orders to authorizations for travel, there is a form designed to provide written documentation of seemingly every possible internal function.
And this doesn't even include customer-claims forms.
In fact, the $17.9-billion-a-year company's staggering volume of interoffice documents supports a separate print shop in Connecticut whose sole mission is to print and warehouse Cigna's forms.
It's a phenomenon called bureaucracy, and it afflicts most organizations.
But Cigna is trying to tame the beast, said J. Raymond Caron, president of Cigna's Systemsgroup, which provides the technological support for Cigna's business units.
Cigna is one of a growing number of U.S. companies - including Ford Motor Co., Miller Brewing Co. and Westinghouse Electric Corp. - that are trying to ''re-engineer" their organizational structures by eliminating redundant tasks and departments, and by using computers to automate as many functions as possible. Cigna also seeks to make sure the company's computer systems are aligned with its strategic plan.
By becoming more efficient, these companies hope to be quicker off the mark and gain an edge on their competitors. And by deploying employees more effectively, they'll also be better positioned to cope with future labor shortages.
Just what is this "re-engineering" concept? Is it yet another addition to the lexicon of corporate buzzwords?
Re-engineering involves "rethinking the way a business operates and is organized," said Michael Hammer, a management consultant in Cambridge, Mass., and a consultant to Cigna. "It is overlaying technology on existing structures. We're now throwing out the old structures and processes and devising new ones."
Cigna plans to spend $2 billion over the next five years on the computer equipment that will help it realign its ranks.
Take those forms mentioned above. Each piece of paper assumes a life of its own once it's filled out by an employee. Perhaps it goes to a secretary who types and duplicates it, then on to a department head for approval, then to at least one other department for processing, before heading for the file cabinet and storage bin.
Once each employee has a computer on his or her desk, as Cigna plans, workers can retrieve the electronic forms instantly and forward them to superiors via a computer network.
Once approval is secured, the electronically generated forms can be posted once again, via computer, to their next destination. Push another computer key or two, and the form will land in the company's computer archives. Because the task of processing the forms has been streamlined, the volume of interoffice mail is reduced and secretarial and filing time is cut, not to mention the reduced paper bill. Multiplied by several thousand forms a year, such savings can amount to quite a sum.
Ford has been a re-engineering pioneer. In its accounts-payable department alone, the company was able to systematically reduce its work force
from 500 to 125 people by reforming its procedures, said Mr. Hammer. It stopped writing invoices for each bill it received, and instead pays suppliers on receipt of goods.
Re-engineering involves more than just shuffling duties within a department, Mr. Hammer said. Over the years, corporations develop a multitude of bad habits. Business is often conducted in certain ways because "it's always been done that way."
''Departments are artifacts," Mr. Hammer said. "They are part of the problem . . . We pretend we're starting the company from scratch." As part of the re-engineering process, managers envision how they would structure the company's operations were they to begin again, "Not how to fix what you've got," Mr. Hammer said.
Mr. Caron said Cigna had a lot of computers that weren't linked by the company's 330,000-mile network. It had no consistent way to train its employees or manage its office automation.
Most of its employees' computers weren't linked by "electronic mail," whereby employees can communicate via their computers.
Cigna considered the way information flows, how it is recorded and what could be eliminated. Managers were amazed at some of the things they found. In one area, Cigna found that information was being recorded in four different departments, leading to a potentially higher error rate, not to mention redundancies.
''It evolved that way," Mr. Caron said. "You don't say you want to devise an error-prone redundant system; it evolves over 20 years."