Why simplicity is the ultimate sophistication

As business gets more complex, managers have responded by making business processes more and more complicated. This approach is wrong-headed.

Managing for profit by Peter Hughes

I visited a citrus packhouse last week. Parked outside was a queue of bakkies.

The scowling drivers were there to purchase fruit – and some had been waiting all night! But that was just the start. Here is the full procedure: once they are let in, they must complete an ‘order form’ for the product they want. The cost is duly computed by the clerk and the buyer handed another piece of paper, in duplicate.

They then drive to the company headquarters 2km away to pay. Here, they are handed a receipt, which they take back to the packhouse, where they once again have to queue, this time to collect their purchases.

Such a simple transaction – yet such a complicated and ‘customer- unfriendly’ process to complete!

Complexity vs complication

I can provide numerous other examples of companies where ‘complication’ drives customers and staff mad. Complexity is a natural consequence of success and growth, particularly in the food industry with its focus on food safety and ethics.

New products, new production technologies and new markets are developed and the organisation and processes to support that growth evolve. The more locations from which a business operates, the more people and management involved, the more complex it all becomes.

Many small decisions are made to develop systems to handle the complexity. Each on its own might make sense, but as time passes, complication creeps in.

We need to be clear about the difference between ‘complexity’ and ‘complication’ here. It is the chosen business strategy that drives the operation’s complexity. Without changing the direction of the business, the markets you operate in, the products you produce, and the locations from which you operate, you will not be able to reduce the complexity of the operation.

‘Complication’ is entirely different. This reflects the way in which the complexity is handled. While managers may have little choice but to face up to the complexity of the business, they are in full control of the way in which they manage that complexity.
At the packhouse mentioned earlier, I saw the result of managers making what should have been simpler jobs extremely complicated for their customers and staff.

You will doubtless have heard of the acronym ‘KISS’ – ‘Keep it simple, stupid’. The more elegant ‘Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication’ is credited to Leonardo da Vinci, but it became a mantra for Steve Jobs of Apple fame. In his biography, Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson tells of Jobs’s excruciating obsession for seeking simplicity.

“Any darn fool can make something complicated, but it takes a genius to make something simple,” he would say, and Jobs was just such a genius.

Primary focus
The obsessive search for simplicity must be one of management’s primary focuses in today’s world of galloping complexity. Strip away all that is not essential, and do what’s left in the easiest way possible.

Coping with the complexity of today’s business is about building capacity in yourself, your people and your organisation to adapt continually, learn speedily, and develop the skill to avoid complication.

A few thoughts on how to KISS when fighting complication:

  • Examine each step in the production and marketing process, and simplify drastically;
  • Consolidate activities and limit the range of products and packaging;
  • Automate wherever you can do so economically;
  • Simplify all administrative procedures. Data must be captured once and once only;
  • Demand brevity in all written documents. Refuse to accept reports longer than one A4 page;
  • Insist on plain everyday language in all written documents, and never accept small print – the font size of reports, for example, should not be less than 12pt.