Mastering Complexity – Dave Tucker

Dave TuckerA recent article highlighting the top ten manufacturing trends for 2012 projected by the International Data Corporation (IDC) stated that “success in the intelligent economy will be achieved through engaged corporations.” The article goes on to specify that engaged corporations are those “that will master complexity.” Bob Parker, group vice president of IDC said that “If you are better at mastering complexity, you’ll have a competitive advantage.” So how does a company excel at mastering complexity?

Part of my experience dealing with complexity comes from having invested over 20 years working on the Space Shuttle Program. The Space Shuttle is the most complex aircraft in the world. And until recently, the Shuttle fleet served as the primary launch vehicles for sending American astronauts into space. The Space Program is full of complexity not unlike manufacturing and most other businesses. Through hundreds of improvement projects spanning across two decades, I had the privilege of assisting many dedicated aerospace workers that were eager to streamline and improve cumbersome processes.

In order to ensure success and remove complexity, I saw that teams and successful companies needed several things:

1. A focus on instilling simplicity
2. Champions that provide guidance
3. Robust tools that assist with analysis
4. Innovative ideas and the power to implement them

Today the focus on instilling simplicity is called “Lean.” One of its basic tenets is to identify and eliminate waste within a process. You can’t get any simpler than that. And while there are many Lean concepts and techniques, my experience is that they all come back to that very basic concept: get rid of stuff in your processes you do not need — remove the waste!

It is a given that some improvement Champions are needed in Senior Management within a company. Without at least one high level Executive leading the way towards process improvement, many “bottom-up” programs quickly die when pushed only by “front-line” employees frustrated with the lack of change. Besides Senior Champions, companies successful at process improvement also provide specially trained staff to assist project efforts throughout the organization. Some companies call these professionals various titles including: Improvement Coordinators, Process Specialists, Black Belts, Master Black Belts, Master Champions, etc.

The third requirement to master complexity and be successful is to have robust tools for data analysis. As a process improvement professional with over 30 years’ overall experience, I can honestly say that the most impressive tools I have used for process improvement are discrete-event simulation applications. These tools allow the user to create a “model” of a process that simulates a real process using a personal computer. The model is loaded with actual process data and once validated, it provides a vehicle for the user to run various “what if” scenarios and help determine the best actions to make improvement. This has been called “predictive analytics.” Simulation tools are appealing because frankly it is much cheaper and easier to try out ideas on a computer than in the real world.

A fourth thing companies need to master complexity is innovative ideas and the power to implement them. In my experience, every employee already knows a lot of ways to improve their key processes and streamline their job. We have very smart workers in U. S. businesses today. The challenge is getting their management to listen to them and empower them to make change.

Organizations that learn how to reduce and master complexity in 2012 will likely find themselves prosperous and successful for many years. As Mr. Parker at IDC has said “We are changing to the engaged organization.” Will your company make the change?

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