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Reaching Critical Mass: How the Complexity Bubble Gets in the Way of Getting Things Done

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If you’ve been struggling with your day-to-day processes becoming more complicated as your business has grown, you’re not alone. Increased complexity is inevitable as product offerings are expanded and clientele becomes more varied. There is a tipping point, however, where complexity becomes excessive and leads to inefficiencies that negatively impact quality, response times, and/or safety. When employees are constantly pulled in multiple directions, roles are not clearly defined, or too many decisions are required just to get through the day, the result is a lot of noise that gets in the way of getting things done. This happens gradually due to the decisions made daily by managers, and hidden within those decisions, are increases in the fixed costs of doing business. According to managementsite.com, 15-20% of costs are complexity driven. This means that, theoretically, by reducing complexity, we can reduce the cost of doing business.

Man writing math problem on chalk board

Causes of Complexity

Proliferation of Product Lines. Frequent launches of new products to try to stay competitive can result in increasing demands on production to manufacture ever-increasing iterations of products to meet specific customer needs. A regular evaluation of your product offering to assure it is being managed appropriately through the product lifecycle is critical to maintaining a streamlined and profitable product mix. If products are continually added without discontinuing those that have exceeded maturity, costs such as repeated changeovers can outweigh the benefits to the bottom line of a broad offering.

Quick Fixes. We may unwittingly add complexity under the guise of solving a problem, such as when a workaround is added to a process rather than addressing the problem at its root cause. This merely covers the problem like a bandage covers a wound. The problem is still there; it’s just hidden. This is merely a containment, not a long-term solution. Furthermore, tiny changes in big systems can have complex results, so what may appear, on the surface, to be an easy solution may only exacerbate a larger issue. While it may be tempting to use a quick fix to address a need in the short-term rather than taking the time to identify the cause at its root, chances are the change won’t be sustainable, and we’ll find ourselves dealing with recurrences of the problem time and again.

Lack of Standards. Complexities on their own are problematic enough. Individual employees will vary the way they perform the work to suit their personal preferences or to get around challenges. Workers come and go, and eventually no one is sure how the work is supposed to be done. At the same time, managers make changes to processes without fully understanding the downstream impact, and entropy sets in. The reality is, systems want to fall apart. An article in AZCentral states, “If you set up a business process and just let it run, entropy will cause the process to slow, get off track or completely break down.”

Definition of entropy

Moreover, without a standard as a baseline, it’s difficult to know if a change to the process is actually addressing the problem and having the desired impact. Establishing clearly defined roles and job instructions with input from the team members who perform the work, as well as regular auditing processes to identify circumstances that force workers to perform outside of the standard, can minimize variation, which in turn fights the effects of entropy that result from differences in how work is performed.

As your business expands, complexity will continue to build. However, processes can be analyzed to determine which steps add value and which ones don’t, and then can be standardized. The key is to focus on your customers. What adds value for them? By identifying value-add activities, you can prioritize the work, simplify by minimizing or ceasing the activities that don’t add value, thereby gaining efficiency and accuracy in performing the work that your customers value and that keeps them coming back.

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