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Complexity

What’s the definition of complexity? It is anything that has a lot of intricacy to it. The word has a negative connotation to it in Lean. So what is complexity from a Lean perspective? It is adding more to a process than is needed. It is adding 3 steps when 2 will suffice. Keep the acronym KISS (‘Keep it simple, stupid’) in mind when developing Lean processes. It is a reminder to avoid complexity.

In general, the more complex a solution or process is, the less likely it is to be followed, and the more likely it is to break, leading to poor quality.

Engineers have a tendency to add complexity to a problem. There is an old story about NASA spending a huge amount of money to develop a pen that would write in space, where there is no gravity to make the ink flow.

The Russian space program used a pencil.

In am sure there were other reasons for their choice. The story might even just be an urban legend. Regardless, it illustrates the point. There is often a simple solution if you look for it.

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Why do we complicate things? Part of the reason is how we are conditioned. We like to see huge banks of flashing lights. The bridge of the Enterprise in Star Trek was appealing to us because of the complexity.

We also think that the more complicated something is, the better it is. Smartphones and new versions of computer programs have numerous features that nobody uses, but we want them anyway. We stare in awe at factories that have huge, complicated machines churning out parts. Engineers drool over the biggest, most expensive gadgets in the catalog.

We also ‘complexify’ equipment because we want to be like a Boy Scouts—prepared for anything. An elaborate piece of machinery may, in fact, be highly flexible. Processes behave the same way. A flowchart may look like a giant oak tree with all its branches. But flexibility often adds complexity. While it is good to be flexible—just balance the need for occasional flexibility with the constant waste that complexity adds to a process.

When making a process, make sure it is as simple as possible. When reviewing options, start with the simplest one first, and then scale up the complexity. If an Excel tracking sheet will work, don’t use an Access database. Use the same principles in selecting materials, product design, compensation structure, etc.

If something can be confused, it will be.

Complexity has a great deal of cost. It costs to correct mistakes, appease confused customers, train people, etc. Making things simple from the beginning will help your bottom line.

  • Adding complexity is an easy trap to fall into. Trying to make a process perfect can overcomplicate it. To avoid that, have someone not involved in making any changes test a process to check for complexity. When project teams get too close to a task, they can become blind to its complexity. 

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