One fundamental principle is at the heart of business improvement, process improvement, and product development. That is to simplify.
The Rest of the Story:
A principle is timeless and objective. In other words, we recognize a principle when it is true for any context. The old axiom, “simpler is better,” fairly describes what I will refer to herein as the Simplicity Principle.
While our desire for more features and more options tends to drive complexity in business, process, and products, those solutions that perform the best, be they business models, market strategies, processes, or products, are the ones that are simplest to understand and operate or manage. Consider some of the products or businesses that you admire most. Are they mind-bogglingly complex, or are they relatively simple.
As we grow our businesses, as we add personnel, roles, product lines, service offerings, as we begin to entertain new clients and markets, our businesses naturally grow more complex. Sometimes we increase complexity by adding more powerful systems to handle greater volumes of information. Sometimes our very policies and procedures grow in complexity as we test their limits and make adjustments. It seems as if complexity is the natural order of progress.
To battle the noise and mess we naturally create, we create or adopt business improvement and process improvement models. We also seek new and better ways to develop products. Coincidentally, at the root of most improvement solutions is a simplification of how we do things.
Six Sigma, for example, strives to reduce variation. Variation generates waste as we increase our energy and resource use to chase down and manage processes and results that are not what we want or expect. Invariably, as we bring processes under control and minimize the noise around, and variation within, our outputs, we simplify the process. Simple things are easier to predict and control.
Similarly, the Lean methodology drives a simplification of process and, often, management structure. Lean seeks to eliminate unnecessary work, waste. It eliminates unnecessary steps, reduces movement and exchanges, minimizes material, and if we follow the philosophic doctrine of the value stream, dictates a highly focused management structure for each market or product line. It simplifies the processes and equipment and decision-making.
Even product development methodologies of renown drive a simplification of the complex product design and development journey. The Value Management Method, for example, lays out a relatively simple to follow process for product design which happens to explicitly dictate the satisfaction of necessary function with the least possible material, component count, and production effort.
The point is, whether your business has adopted a popular business improvement or process improvement methodology, or whether you prefer to follow your own methods, you can generate a great deal of business, process, and product improvement by making the Simplicity Principle the heart of your improvement methodology.
The Simplicity Principle is as follows.
Effectively accomplish what is important with the least possible.
Even the wording is simple. It better be. The meaning can be broad and deep, however. Without rambling, here are some thoughts to help with the understanding.
It does no good to be simple if it is not effective. Whatever “it” is, it must do the job well or it is no solution at all.
The key is to focus on what is important. Important can be variation, waste, or key customer expectations. If the unimportant slips through the cracks, it’s OK. Besides, focusing on the unimportant counters our effort to remain simple.
The “least possible” can refer to resources, energy, time, or features. Determine what least possible means for each specific context. Prioritize; it might be OK to have a little more material cost to simplify the customer interface.
Let’s outline some of the many aspects of our businesses that we can seek to simplify. This will get us started down the path of making major, profitable improvements. Consider the following.
- Re-useable parts
- Customer Interface
- Production Structures
The above list covers significant territory. By the time we have addressed any two of those areas, we should be expert enough in the Simplicity Principle to apply it virtually anywhere. To help get us started, let’s discuss a few of the items on the above list. Hopefully, the discussion will help us perceive how the principle applies.
Simplifying processes seems like an obvious one. In particular, I find that the Lean methodology is especially apt at identifying and eliminating complexity of process. Ignoring the Lean approach, here are some other guidelines to get us started.
Try to define every process with 7 or fewer steps. Fewer are better, as long as they are clear and sensible (effective). I suggest the number 7 because it is generally the upper limit of things most of us can track at one time. Processes are followed when they are simple, they are circumvented or unlearned when they are complicated.
Some processes, in their simplest state, are more than 7 steps long. Break them down into sub-processes, following the same rule of 7-or-less-steps. A good practice is to ensure that every process or sub-process has a single owner, one person with final say over how the process is satisfied. (More on this in the Decisions discussion)
To the greatest degree practical, eliminate approvals, reviews, movement, hand-offs or exchanges, and steps that do not enhance the outcome. The degree practical depends on effectiveness and importance. For example, it may be worth our while to conduct design reviews before testing. Even though it may not enhance the product, it prevents us from testing prematurely and from having to re-test. Here is an important hint. Planning enhances the outcome and is, therefore, an important step, not an unnecessary one.
Minimize the effort to accomplish tasks or steps. Eliminate opportunities for error. Errors lead to re-work. Look for ways to reduce time, which of course is related to effort, steps, and mistakes.
Follow the above ideas to begin simplifying your processes. They work on the production floor as well as in the office.
One of the greatest sources of lost time and effort in most businesses is indecision. Strive to eliminate decision-by-committee. Strive to ensure that one person with the authority to make a decision resides at the place where the problem or challenge manifests. This often means putting the authority, and also the information needed to make an informed decision, in the hands of the lowest-ranking leader.
When the line manager can resolve a problem on a production line it is resolved quickly. When permission to access resources or affect processes must come from a manager far removed from the production line, it can take days to get that permission, and sometimes the understanding of the problem is poor, and therefore, the decision may not be appropriately made. Nothing happens quickly if a quorum must be convened to discuss it first, and achieving resolution is rarely simple.
How far must a piece of information travel, through how many hands, before it reaches the person who needs it? Simple communications are the key to simple and quick decisions. The more people involved, the more opinions and personalities that must be addressed, thus, the more complicated.
Keep communications simple. If several people in a chain of command need the information, get it to them simultaneously. Don’t pass it from one to another. This means that unnecessary communications should also be eliminated.
To address communication affectivity, understand the following. E-mail is fine for transmitting data. It is not effective at explaining, answering, instructing, or in general, communicating. To communicate, speak in person or over the phone. If you must explain something to a large number of people all at once, use a meeting and keep it short.
Our lists of things are great sources of complexity. Look to simplify lists. Many times the bottom 5% of our product portfolios may cost more than they produce. Eliminate them. The same goes for customers and markets. Simplify your lists to only the important ones.
Simpler portfolios require less time and effort to manage. Think about how deeply our market portfolio can affect everything else. More markets means more strategies. More strategies mean more projects and product lines. That usually leads to more resource sharing, and more conflicts, more components in inventory, more personnel, more suppliers, more everything, and a great deal of complexity.
Yes, it is important to grow the business. Particularly for incorporated businesses, it can be very important to diversify our markets. We can diversify and still be reasonably simple. Consolidate to the important markets and let the un-important go. They aren’t worth the complexity.
One of the most effective ways to improve performance for any business is to simplify the project list. Fewer projects, with devoted resources instead of shared resources, execute quickly and more effectively.
Take a look at any list you run across in your business and ask how it might be effectively simplified. Doing so is a very powerful way to improve performance.
Production Systems: (yes we skipped a few subjects on the list)
Examine a business with multiple production facilities producing the same product. This happens often as an effort to reduce risk or because production outgrew one facility. Now examine the complexity of it.
Multiple production facilities typically lead to multiple supply chains and distribution channels. Often it leads to multiple support structures such as sourcing, engineering, quality, safety, human resources, and management. Multiple structures often leads to multiplicity of rules, standards, differing processes, differing policies, etc. Now when we want to make a change, or drive a standard, or introduce a new system, everything associated with that change is greatly complicated.
Endeavor to manage risk without introducing the complexity of multiple production structures. Try to produce all of one product line in a single facility.
This Web page would go on for a very long time if we discussed every aspect of a business that can be simplified. The idea is, however, to attack every aspect of the business with a mind for simplification. Think big, but simplify the little things too. They all make a difference.
Here are some thoughts to help get started with the simplification process. Often the solution becomes apparent when we simply ask the right question. Try these out on targets of opportunity.
How will this…[solution, system, software, process, form, equipment, etc.] make work life simpler?
- Why do we do it this way?
- How does this enhance the outcome?
- Who makes the decision? Who should make the decision?
- How many people does this affect?
- Why is this different from that?
- Why can’t we do it another way? What are some other ways we can do this?
Here is one final thought to get you going. If it seems complicated, it is too complex. Our intuition is a powerful judgment tool. Don’t be afraid to let it guide your target reticle toward opportunities to simplify.
As you proceed, get your business values in order. You will certainly run into scenarios where you will need to decide what is the greater priority and will need some guidelines to aid your decisions. For example, you may need to allow a certain amount of complexity to ensure quality, at least until you come up with a better solution.
We don’t need to engage popular improvement methodologies in order to improve our business. We simply need to embrace the Simplicity Principle and let it guide our decisions and actions toward a simpler, more efficient and effective business.
For those of us who have already incorporated improvement methodologies, give them a good shot in the arm by challenging them to demonstrate how they are making things simpler. It should be taking place. Check to make sure.
Effectively accomplish what is important with the least possible. Adopt it as a motto, or just ask some simple questions about the changes coming up regarding how those changes are going to simplify things. Challenge your business to simplify. The quest to simplify can drive huge improvements in your business performance.
Stay wise, friends.