How to Cut Through Complexity and Get Things Done

Last Updated Dec 8, 2009 5:49 PM EST

How to Cut Through Complexity and Get Things DoneComplexity is an epidemic. Mass customization, choice overload, and the proliferation of gadgets have conspired to consume our cycles and productivity. And product proliferation, communication congestion, and analysis paralysis have made the workplace chaotic.

But there's help on the horizon.

Business Pundit interviewed consultant and author Ron Ashkenas whose new book, "Simply Effective: How to Cut Through Complexity in Your Organization and Get Things Done," comes out tomorrow, December 8th.

Here's an excerpt from the interview, followed by five examples of complexity-gone-wild:

BP: How do you define simplicity in an organization?
RA: It's the ability to get things done with the least amount of wasted motion, in a way that will satisfy both your customers and the people doing the work. Workers feel like there's a direct line of sight to what they're contributing and to what customers are receiving. Customers have a direct line of sight to what they're getting, and what the value is.

When you start adding all that up, it also means reducing costs, reducing inefficiency and non-value-added stuff that gets built in, and reducing lots of frustration.

BP: Why do people tend to make organizations complex?
RA: First of all, nobody wakes up in the morning and says "I'm going to try to make my organization more complex today."

Some of it happens just by natural forces of business and competition, technology and regulation. All the environmental stuff that's continually bombarding organizations creates a level of complexity.

Managers unintentionally and unconsciously contribute to and compound that complexity. Sometimes it's in the way that they organize the organization. Sometimes it's in the way that they manage processes or their portfolio of products. Sometimes it's in their own managerial behaviors.

Ashkenas goes on to cite a number of interesting examples. Here are five, along with my own commentary:
  • Herman Miller originally offered 140 million customization options for its Aeron line of ergonomic office chairs. The ability to mass produce any one of those configurations added tremendous complexity and cost to the company's sales and manufacturing operations and throughout the entire supply chain.
  • We're great at creating new products and services, but not so good at sunsetting old ones. That immediately brought to mind Texas Instruments, which, in the 80s, made everything from missiles and home computers to digital watches and Speak & Spell toys. Intel, on the other hand, was notorious for getting out of product lines - like DRAMs, EPROMs, and ASICs - before they became commodity.
  • His reference to a grocery store chain in Germany brought to mind Trader Joes and Costco - stores with completely different concepts, but both offer limited product choice and great pricing (and quality on most items).
  • With respect to our financial crisis, he cited the combination of financial institutions creating products - like mortgage backed securities and credit default swaps - that were so complex even Warren Buffet said he didn't understand them, coupled with a highly fragmented and complex regulatory structure.
  • How many people click "reply all" in email or proliferate dozens of versions of essentially the same documents and presentations? Then there's my favorite: Meetings. Unnecessary, poorly conducted, attendees who have no business being there, no documentation of decisions made, no follow up, I can go on and on.
How many ways can you think of that complexity impairs productivity, wastes time, and keeps you from getting things done?

Also check out:

  1. Marketing Megatrend: Simple Sells
  2. In Management, Keep it Simple
  3. How to Run an Effective Meeting