The False Allure of Complexity

By on December 6, 2017
The False Allure of Complexity

“That’s been one of my mantras—focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”
– Steve Jobs

Over and over again in my thirty-five years as a consultant, I’ve seen the ways in which the allure of complexity blurs vision. There’s something about the way in which we human beings think that leads us to an infatuation with complex solutions. Why is this? Why, in our attempts to improve work processes, do we often migrate to graphs, charts, diagrams, etc., produced by a variety of practitioners, each of whom bring us solutions cloaked in the magic of their profession?

One simple reason is that magic sells.

But I think there’s a much more basic reason. Steve Jobs’ comment, “You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple,” gets right at the heart of the matter. “Working hard to change your thinking” is a very personal process. And most of us find it a lot easier to examine issues outside of ourselves than those that are part and parcel of who we are and how we think and how we act. That’s tough.

It’s a lot easier to “confront” numbers on a chart than our own thinking processes. Jeffrey Liker, Professor of Industrial and Operations Engineering at the University of Michigan, describes the impact of this type of thinking.

“The typical approach to Lean Six Sigma fits Western thinking about simple cause-effect relationships and the overall perspective that the business is a technical system that needs clever manipulation with the right tool kit to achieve financial returns. This type of thinking is totally alien to the human systems underpinnings of Lean.”

“Clever manipulation driven by tool kits” sells. Unhappily it doesn’t drive continuous improvement. It may drive episodic improvement but these gains quickly evaporate. And why is this?

It happens for one simple reason. Tools may have been used to manipulate work processes but the way employees who engage in these work processes think had not been changed. And without changed thinking improved work processes often quickly morph back into what they were before. The way we work is a product of the way we think.

It follows that the only way we’re going improve the way we work is to change the way we think. How are thinking processes changed? Taiichi Ohno, chief architect of the Toyota Production System, had some sage advice on this issue. He said, “You can act your way into good thinking faster than you can think your way into good actions.” We can change the way we think by changing the way we act.

Simple advice. Not necessarily easy to follow. But it has to happen if an organization’s work processes are going to be continuously improved. There are no options. It’s either continuous improvement or ultimate failure in the marketplace. So what can an organization do to create a culture in which continuous improvement is driven by the power of simplicity?

First, resist the allure of consultants selling clever ways of manipulating work processes with a variety of tool kits that are part of their package of magic. What they’ll be bringing to your company will certainly build profits…but not yours, theirs.

Second, the organization’s leadership team has to directly confront, and accept, the fact that their thinking about work and workers very likely needs to change. They need to ask themselves these types of questions:

  • Do we really understand the way work happens in our organization?
  • Do all of our employees know that we highly value the work they do?
  • Do all of our employees believe that we respect their intelligence and creativity?
  • Do all of our employees clearly understand that our success as a company depends upon the quality of their work and their thinking?
  • Do all of our employees believe that we are committed to building good futures for them?
  • Are respect, candor, and trust the defining characteristics of our organization?

When these questions are all answered in the affirmative, the organization is well on its way to creating a continuous improvement culture.

Third, the company’s employees need to change the way they think about work. The message Toyota conveys to its employees needs to be conveyed to them. “You work for Toyota for two reasons, to work and to think, and, of the two, thinking is the most important.”

Fourth, all work in the organization needs be governed by standardized work documents. These documents should be developed collaboratively by the people who do the work. As Taiichi Ohno teaches us, without standardized work, continuous improvement is not possible.

And finally, the organization needs to acknowledge and act upon the fact that continuous improvement is driven through the elimination of waste, in all of its various forms.

And that, by the way, is what Lean manufacturing is all about. It’s simply about the elimination of waste. Lean is powerful because it creates an intense focus on the elimination of waste. It really is that simple.

In the 14th Century, a Franciscan Friar, William of Ockham, developed a principle later referred to as “Occam’s Razor.” He wrote, Pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate, “Plurality should not be posited without necessity.” Occam’s Razor is often restated in a number of different forms such as the following:

  • “The simplest explanation for some phenomenon is more likely to be accurate than more complicated explanations.”
  • “If you have two equally likely solutions to a problem, choose the simplest.”

Over the years, Occam’s Razor has impacted the thinking of individuals in many professions, including medicine, philosophy, religion, and physics. Its influence can also be seen in the practice of Lean manufacturing. Unlike some other popular productivity improvement processes that build on a mystique of complexity practiced by a priesthood of hierarchical practitioners, Lean, at its heart, is based on the power of simplicity.

St. Louis Community College’s Workforce Solutions Group can provide your organization with simple processes to drive out waste. We don’t bring more complexity to your organization. We bring simple, powerful solutions. We don’t sell magic, we sell results. Call me anytime at 314-303-0612 and let’s discuss how simplicity can be put to work in your organization. I think you’ll find it time very well spent.

About George Friesen

George Friesen serves as Business Practice Leader - Lean Manufacturing for the Workforce Solutions Group of St. Louis Community College. He has led the College's Lean business practice area since 2000. Prior to joining the College, George worked for Maritz Performance Improvement Company. Over the past 35 years, he has served a wide variety of Fortune 500 companies, specializing during the past eleven years in Lean Manufacturing, focusing especially on the 5S System, Lean leadership and thinking processes, Value Stream Mapping, and Lean team building. George is a graduate of Washington University (AB), Webster University (MA), and United States Air Force Flight Training.

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