Ruthless Simplification

There seems to be a significant amount being written these days regarding simplification. It’s difficult to go through the news and not see some article regarding how people see and feel the need to simplify their lives and what they are doing to simplify their lives. The same seems to be true with businesses. Businesses are always trying to simplify the way they perform their work. There are usually all sorts of programs, processes and initiatives focused trying to simplify the business. When you net them all out, they can usually be summed up in a simple statement: In order to simplify, you need to ruthlessly stop doing work that provides no value to your customers.

On the surface this sounds easy, but in practice business inertia makes this activity a little more difficult to accomplish. In these times when any discussion turns to the topic of no longer doing specific work or tasks, that activity is translated into preparation for staff reductions. The stakeholders in the current process will almost always generate some resistance to changes of these types. While reductions can be a potential outcome it should not be the focus. Over time businesses accrete tasks associated with the way they work. As the business needs change, new tasks and objectives are added to meet them. Businesses usually have very good processes and methods for adding new work, but rather poor processes and methods for discontinuing tasks that have either outlived their usefulness or no longer provide direct value to its customers.

Most simplification processes start out as methods of re-categorizing existing tasks and then grouping like work together in an effort to glean some efficiency from having similar tasks performed by similar groups. This simplification approach doesn’t reduce the amount or type of work being done. It assumes that all work currently being done in the business is critical to the business. I think that is the major fallacy of this simplification approach.

Almost every business will have functions and tasks that remain from previous products, processes and programs. The incremental value to the business of this work will be suspect at best, but unless active measures are taken to remove it, it will continue to absorb business staff and resources. The objective of all simplification projects should be to identify and remove work, and more specifically work of questionable incremental value to the business, from the business. With this objective in mind business simplification should not try to enable a business to do more with less, but rather simplification should target having the business do less, but being able to do the remaining work much better.

Now the question that arises is: which work should the business look to simplify? At the risk of sounding a little trite, there are basically three functions that a business must perform. A business must create products and services for customers, sell products and services and deliver products and services to customers in order to be successful. If the tasks in question do not directly contribute to one of these functions it is a candidate for further review. That doesn’t mean that all tasks outside of these functions should be eliminated. There are some functions, Finance, Human Resources, etc., that do not fall into these categories, but are a business requirement. It is also very probable that there are tasks within these specific functions, meetings, reporting, reviewing, etc., that do not directly contribute specific value to the function that may need to be simplified if not eliminated.

A further guiding principle should be: does the specific task provide value directly to the customer? If a task cannot be identified as directly providing a value to a customer, it is adding a cost to the product or service that is providing value to a customer. If the product or service can be provided to the customer without the incremental costs associated with the identified task, then the task is a very good candidate for simplification.

The idea here is to identify work that must be done in order to provide value to the customer. Customers will pay for goods and services with which they associate value. If there are tasks that are creating costs, absorbing resources and providing minimal value to the customer, they are the potential targets for simplification. Businesses have a tendency over time to create tasks and structures that are designed to provide perceived value internally to the business, not externally to the customer.

Examples of these types of non-value added tasks can be: business reviews that occur regularly where information / presentations / discussions are provided, but where no action items are given; or business requests for information and data, where resources are expended fulfilling the requests, but no business information or actions are provided in return. There is a long list of resource absorbing, non-value adding tasks, which on the surface appear useful business, but when viewed from a business requirement and customer value point of view can and probably should be simplified.

Resources are too precious to allow them to be wasted on tasks that are not directly providing value to the customers, and through the customers, value back to the business. They need to be ruthlessly protected. There is always more valuable work that needs to be done then there are resources to perform it. This is where the ruthless simplification of the tasks that do not provide customer value can strip away the drag on the business, as well as free up the resource to provide the incremental value adding work that needs to be done.

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