Finding Simplicity in Complexity

As our world continues to grow more complex, it’s easy to wonder if that fundamental change is affecting how we work and live. The answer is simple: when machines and processes work correctly, we tend to work correctly, when they don’t, it’s exponentially more frustrating. Essentially, technology has driven much of the new complexity. What is often lacking is understanding how human beings will interact with it. Very few things come with only an “on” and “off” button these days. Most products usually come with a cumbersome manual and a customer service number or technical service hotline.

When Apple introduced the iPod in 2001, Steve Jobs did not market the complexity of the technology; he positioned its simplicity in design (for the human interaction) and the simplicity of what it could do – “1,000 songs in your pocket”.  So, what’s the difference in this approach and others?

The purpose of this post is twofold. First, to understand what is driving complexity and second, what today’s leaders should be doing to understand it so they can lead their organizations more effectively.

What is Driving Complexity?

Complexity and Complex Systems is a science, and one of the fastest growing fields of study. The study of complexity encompasses a very diverse range of subjects from the economy, transportation systems, banking systems, food supply chains, the stock markets, the space shuttle, manufacturing systems and search engines.  All of these have evolved into very complex systems.  As complexity increases, the need for a system to manage all the complexity is required. It is important to understand the natural laws driving complexity.

The Laws of Complex Systems

  • Simple processes naturally evolve into complex systems.
  • As a system gets more complex, the ability of individuals to understand every aspect of the system diminishes.
  • As the system grows in complexity, fewer people can understand it, control it, or predict what it will do. The system becomes less stable, less  efficient, and more prone to error.
  • As you work to improve one part of the system, other areas will be affected in a negative way (The Law of Unintended Consequences).

There is much more to the science of complexity, but one take-away is that it is a natural evolution and part of our everyday lives. The challenge for leaders is to actually embrace complexity in a robust system that makes the complex simple.

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The Last Mile

When I ask myself why so many things don’t work as they should, I concluded that the last design steps weren’t often completed. They didn’t finish the last mile. The technical design is often very good, but how is it going to work in the field? The two biggest failure modes in developing robust systems and processes are:

  • Time
  • Organizational Silos

Even if the designers of complex systems wanted to enlist other stakeholders the pressure to ring the bell often overshadows them. We end up with technically elegant systems that have not been thoroughly vetted.

A Simplicity Story

Over two decades ago, as a young man working for Milliken & Company, a large privately-owned textile and chemical company, I witnessed firsthand how leaders could create simplicity from complexity. With the textile industry under siege from offshore competition, Milliken had to change. During this time, our U.S. competitors were shutting down plants on a weekly basis.

While on a benchmarking trip to Japan, a team from Milliken’s operations discovered a very sophisticated system of manufacturing.  The results they brought back from the Japanese companies were startling.  Our real question was could a U.S. company implement such a system? Over the next two years the company commissioned three more study trips to Japan to thoroughly understand and validate what was seen on the first trip.  Each trip confirmed what was possible for Milliken.

Everyone in the company knew we needed to do something different to combat the threat.  Our recommendation to leadership was to do exactly what we saw in Japan.  Roger Milliken, then CEO & Chairman, fully understood the competitive landscape and what was at stake for his family’s business. When he heard the recommendation to implement the Japanese approach, he said, “No”.

Roger Milliken said he liked the results, and he liked the spirit and intent of what we had seen, but we were not going to put someone else’s system in our company.  He went on to say, “We are going to make it fit us, our industry and our culture.”  With that, he selected a team of 13 people (I was one of them) from every division and every geographical area to figure out the new system for Milliken.

The following week, when the team assembled at headquarters, it was clear we thought we could get it done that week.  However, our first presentation to Roger Milliken did not go well.  While we had designed in the technical discoveries we had made, we had not thought how those working in our plants would use the new system. We had not thought about the words they would use.  He was right, but time was not on our side.

It took the team three months to complete the architecture of the Milliken Performance System and then several years to implement it.  Over two decades later it is still performing at the highest level. Milliken had found the simplicity in complexity.

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The Keys to Simplicity

Making the complex seem simple is not that hard. It does take a concerted effort by leadership to ensure the last mile is covered. Here are the keys.

  • Words. Make sure everyone involved knows the words you use and understand what they mean. Apple could have told us about the gigabytes of storage, but what did that mean to the end user? The technical folks know, but by using a common language, like the number of songs – everyone gets it.
  • WIIFM (What’s in it for me?) Engaging everyone in the development is paramount. At Milliken, everyone owned the new system.  Getting engagement means understand how each person’s affected, what benefits them.
  • Educate. Yes, everyone will need to be taught the new way. Not just the technical stuff, but how it impacts them. This is easy to skip. Don’t.
  • Leaders. We have to insist on simplifying what we make or what we do to the simplest form. If people don’t understand something, they reject it. Leaders must insist on going the last mile.

The Leadership Challenge

The world is still getting more complex. We are not going to return to a simpler time.  The real challenge for leaders is to spend the time, make the effort, and provide the resources to keep the complexity as simple as possible.

Performance Solutions by Milliken provides three distinguishing capabilities for long-term, holistic change: tested solutions, demonstrated practices, and experienced practitioners. Learn more about how the Milliken Performance Solutions enables sustainable change.

Craig Long spent the last 40 years with Milliken & Company in many different roles. For over 20 years he was VP of Quality. More recently, Craig started the consultancy Performance Solutions by Milliken, now operating in 400 operations in 23 countries.

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