Complexity is killing the ability of many companies to innovate and adapt. So, simplicity can be a competitive advantage. Imagine what it’d be like where everyone only engages in essential and meaningful work. How can leaders rebuild their organizations with Simplicity in its DNA?
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Top 5 Learning Points
- You can’t operate with speed; you can’t compete. By just writing it off, I think that’s an absolute nonstarter, that cannot be the way that we operate
- How do you kill complexity and sustain simple?
- What do employees want- to be inspired to work in a simplified environment?
- How do you add more, change processes, and as a result, change reporting relationships, and still maintain simplicity?
- Should we take simplicity as a step, always when we’re trying to grow?
- By being more intentional about making everything as simple as possible, we can start to clear away the clutter while a lot of the bigger simplification initiatives get put in place.
- The best companies that are truly both innovative, the simplified, are the ones that get comfortable with constantly killing complexities to make space for the innovation to happen so it can become a habit.
- How we can measure simplicity or the ability to get things done in a company are things like, employee retention levels, consistent growth-not just a business as usual stuff but new bottom line growth.
- Innovating with simplicity- not replicating the past, but actually creating new more innovative and more efficient processes for the future.
- Defining it, tackling just a couple things and then saying the metrics that you want out of it are really a great way to get people comfortable with simplifying and seeing the value in it.
- How does Agile increase on processes, innovation and streamlining the products?
- It’s really walking the walk and talking to talk and making sure that they know that when you say something, you’re going to have their back and yes, they can make change, even at the lowest level that you’re going to support that change.
- Don’t start unless you’ve done all of the homework, you’ve put all of the thoughts, and you talked thoroughly to all of the people involved.
To drive simplicity, on needs a compelling vision for the future and a structured, systematic communication. They need to build trust or else the teams won’t follow. Getting the influencers on board with a vision of simplicity that drives efficiency, reduces costs and increases agility, gets everybody’s buy-in and drives the project better.
Sanjog: Today we discuss the topic “Leading to Simple,” with Lisa Bodell, the author of Why Simple Wins, and Ed Toner, CIO, State of Nebraska. Today, we are trying to do a lot more technology, more business processes, more acquisitions, because of which everything is becoming intertwined complex, and that is actually pulling us down. Could this be a time when organizations take a solemn vow to actually embrace simplicity, make it part of the very DNA? Could it not become a competitive advantage? The answer intuitively seems to be yes, but then how easier said than done, that’s what we want to explore.
Lisa, this is for you. We’re saying we want to do a lot of reporting, as the companies are trying to do more with lesser resources or maybe pumping in more resources, who is accountable? Who is making the decision, how are things going to be changed? Everything is moving at warp speed, and we’re trying to change wheels of a very fast-moving car, it cannot be easy. When we have this happening, do you think we should just say, “life will become simple after this complexity”? Can we live with it or there has to be something done upfront about simplicity?
Lisa: The thing has to be done upfront. To me, you just hit the nail on the head when you said simplicity should be our competitive advantage. I truly believe that, and the statistics and research show that. Just by way of background, not too long-ago SAP had done a future of work study, and the number one concern that 70% of the CEOs that were interviewed said, is complexity. The reason why it was their number one concern is that people were drowning in mundane work, they were unable to get the real work that mattered done, and they realized that because for better or worse, things involving technology, big data, etc. are only going to get worse over time. Something has to be done to kill complexity because complexity is the enemy of meaningful work and it’s not about being big anymore, it’s about being fast.
You can’t operate with speed; you can’t compete. By just writing it off, I think that’s an absolute nonstarter, that cannot be the way that we operate. To answer your question, I think that the focus needs to be at every level of the organization, not just from the top, making simplification our new operating system because when simplification becomes top of mind, we become more intentional about it. The problem with so much complexity, the evil twin of simplicity, is that so much of it that it’s created is so unnecessary. We can get into that a little bit more but that means by being more intentional about making everything as simple as possible, we can start to clear away the clutter while a lot of the bigger simplification initiatives get put in place. There’s a lot we can do on a day to day basis to simplify our work, in terms of meeting and emails and policies and reporting, to get rid of those redundancies while bigger things are put in place. You can’t wait for those things to happen or kick the can down the road, in my opinion.
By being more intentional about making everything as simple as possible, we can start to clear away the clutter while a lot of the bigger simplification initiatives get put in place.
Sanjog: Ed, why is this a chronic issue, do you think we are taking on more than we can tackle? Is that where we lose track of what’s supposed to remain simple and unintentionally make it complex?
Ed: I spent 20 years of my career in private industry and just the last two and a half years in public. Things in the public sector are much more complex than in the private sector. It’s inherent because of the fact that in the public sector, you’ve got separate agencies and separate boards, you’ve got separate commissions, and every one of them feels like they need to be autonomous. What that means to the IT world is that we have dozens and dozens of internal infrastructure networks that are separate and don’t even talk to each other. One of the things that I did when I came to the state, two and half years ago was exactly what you’re talking about. I want to take all that complication, all of that out. Of course, by doing that, I hit bureaucracy but we’ve done it, and in fact, I think we did it faster than any other state. We have consolidated all of our code agencies, many of the non-code. The difference in code and non-code are the ones that report to the governor and the ones that don’t.
In March last year, I announced we were going to consolidate all agencies that were code agencies and non-coding agencies that wanted to join us. During that entire 18-month process, we did something that was unique to any state, and that is -instead of asking one agency at a time, I went out and took every single network engineer across the state and added them to our team, then gave them the first task- that is take everything off of your network and put it onto the one state network. That was six months. Six months later, we went out to all the server engineers and said, “I want them off. Bring them into my group, and by the way, your first job is now that we have a centralized network, take every server, every day in a closet out there. There were dozens of these across the state, and I told them, “I want them in our two data centers.”
The third thing we did six months later. We said every desktop and everybody who supports desktops; they’re coming into the state. By the way, we’re not going to support out of one central location anymore; we’re going to support out of eight service centers that are closer to our customers across the state. Just doing that cost us nothing and we’ve already saved $10.2 million in efficiencies to date. That was an 18-month project, start to finish, we are completely finished. We have decreased the number of IT staff in a state by 12.5%. We’ve increased our statistics, the service levels and we have consolidated dozens of separate applications into what we call Standards.
Things in the public sector are much more complex than in the private sector. It’s inherent because of the fact that in the public sector, you’ve got separate agencies and separate boards, you’ve got separate commissions, and every one of them feels like they need to be autonomous.
I said we have one enterprise content management system; we have one email system. We have one of everything, and we have picked the best of the breed and eliminated all the other contracts. That has saved us millions in reduced staff, increased efficiency, reduced cost, and increased quality- every single month. We went in and actually simplified from the bottom up all across the state.
Sanjog: That’s a very encouraging story for other states and even for the private sector because there is complexity even in private sector. Lisa, when you hear Ed’s accomplishments, there was subtraction, there were efficiency gains, everything else. Would you roll this up into saying, he simplified?
Lisa: I would say most definitely. That’s fantastic. Your point is a great one by way of public versus private in terms of public sectors. Having done some work with an education and some other areas within government agencies, I feel there are more handcuffs so to speak versus guardrails that you have to operate with. What he was talking about which is, yes, it’s a cost reduction, but it was also resourced reduction. But the other side of it is, it’s not just a financial gain that you get with simplification. It’s a cultural gain as well as an ethical gain, which is something that people don’t realize.
The cultural gain is things that you get from servicing your customers better, making them happier. Employees are happier because of their service better; you don’t waste their time, there’s a better place to work because they’re being able to focus on things that matter versus not being able to get service from an IT perspective. Those things add to culture. That’s another benefit.
The other thing is, it’s an ethical thing. Ethical meaning, it’s not okay to waste people’s time anymore. Time is worth more than a lot of people than money. What’s interesting is, we let people waste our time so much, and people are starting to get upset about it. People that are proactive like Ed mentioned, it is really smart, whether it’s for his employees or for the constituency service because it’s not right away people’s money, and that alone it’s something that he’s ahead of the game on. Getting rid of redundancies and all those other things are the smart approach, the result that he has I think, speak volumes. That’s what simplicity should do.
Sanjog: People say that it gets ugly before it gets better, so Ed what do you do when you are dealing with the structural shifts in the roles? You said, all teams are not going to be local to that region, you’ll come here, or then you will not be serviced by that one central location, they’ll be multiple. That means there is a flux not only technology-wise, which you consolidated, but you also had to look at what a person deals with on a typical day. Do you think there’s a way to simplify that transition? Can you tackle that and make that transition process simple?
Ed: Communication is the key. You have to put out as a transformational leader, and that’s what we did. We changed the culture. Everything is now coming from one central location, where before they were getting direction from multiple areas. My office telling them what they do what to do, they had in their agency telling them what to do, then they had all these different really bosses across the state. They now have one. I realized that by having that one central location that was setting policy, I had better have a good roadmap. I published that 18 months out so that our teams know exactly where I’m going and what I’m doing 18 months from today, and that’s public on our website.
I also constantly blog about what we’re doing, why we’re doing what we’re doing, talking about success stories, and letting people know how this is actually working. A great example is, when I went to the distributed model of desktop support, we had an instance where we shut down a State Patrol Center in a town very far west, six hours away by car. We had to move that equipment to the new location which was another four hours away. In our old model, you would send someone from our central location; they would drive six hours, they would then take all of the equipment at that location, disconnect it, put it in a van, drive it to the new location, and then set it back up and then come back home. That’s going to take two days. Well, because I had people located in those locations, it took them a matter of hours, two or three hours because they were sitting in the Scottsbluff location, which is a way West Nebraska if you know our geography, they just disconnected.
They had a State Patrol and actually drive the equipment to the new State Patrol location. I had another group of people that connected a couple hours there. So what would have taken two days and had been a really bad service, happened the same day and quicker than they’ve ever had it done before? That type of thing has to be advertised, so I blogged about it. I wrote about it. I wrote exactly what happened. As long as you are really communicating those successes and you just keep rolling with them, people start buying into that new culture of why in the world are we sending someone from Lincoln, Nebraska to Scottsbluff, Nebraska, then down to North Platte, Nebraska and then they had to go back to Lincoln Nebraska, why didn’t we just have someone in Scottsbluff and North Platte doing this work? That’s what we’re doing. The really big advantage here is, I didn’t move anyone to Scottsbluff or North Platte. They were there already; they were just underutilized, they weren’t doing state work, they were doing a particular agency’s work. I’m now asked them to do the entire regions work and believe it or not; I haven’t had to increase staffing at all.
The customers are writing to us saying, “I’ve never been serviced so quickly.” Why? Because they would call on a Tuesday, I couldn’t get up to Scottsbluff if I wanted to until Wednesday. Now they’re getting that same day service. Cheaper for the state, no travel cost.
Sanjog: That’s phenomenal. Lisa, let’s explore that is an outer success. Is that an automatic indication of inner simplicity because some companies we see the wins, but then if you go closer, it looks like the company is imploding. What are the signs which the outside people will see or in fact even more importantly, inside people will see, which will tell that whatever efforts they’re making to simplify are actually simplifying the organization? We heard great success story what Ed led. Now, this is great where he also mentioned how he simplified and that led to success, but that’s not always the case when you see the rest of the world. We hear a lot of success stories but then you look closer, you find that it has created more complexity. It becomes like a sine wave, you go up and down or the only time when you go up is you will you have some sort of success but internally it is imploding. That means, someplace complexity is getting introduced as a result of this because we want to be competitive, we want to roll out new products and features.
Lisa: It’s interesting, you were asked for the signs of simplicity, is that what you were talking about before I think. There are many different signs in terms of simplicity. It’s interesting, what you see on the outside, no it’s what’s happening on the inside of a company that all of us very well know. But one of the biggest signs that I can tell you is a company really doing what they say they’re saying. You can look at actually performance reviews. One of the things that they do on a lot of company’s annual employee’s surveys is that there has been a big focus on innovation, which is great. Innovation that typically focuses on doing more because we are addicted to more. We think that more has more value and what happened is that’s where companies you can see a growth spurt, but you don’t know if there’s going to be a problem looming on the horizon because suddenly, they’re not going to be able to take on more because they’ve created the beast that they become a slave to. The best companies that are truly both innovative, the simplified, are the ones that get comfortable with constantly killing complexities to make space for the innovation to happen, so it can become a habit.
For example, when you look at these performance reviews, one of the questions they typically ask or they rate high on is, are we an innovative company? I’ll give you an example of a pharmaceutical company here on the East Coast that said, 89% of their employees said that they are innovative, but the thing that they rank lowest on, on their annual employee survey was the ability to get things done. What that showed me was, and you see this with a lot of the companies that the perception and the window dressing, hey, we’re innovative but no one’s getting anything done. What that signals to me have they had a culture of complexity, and they needed to change the habits and the metrics upon which they measured how people work. The reason I say that is, a lot of people spend time in building a culture and culture aesthetics within their companies- like cultural whiteboards on the walls and colorful walls and bean bag chairs and organic food in the cafeteria. All that stuff is great, but that’s not only why people stay at work because if that was true, then Google would have a 100% retention rate.
The best companies that are truly both innovative, the simplified, are the ones that get comfortable with constantly killing complexities to make space for the innovation to happen so it can become a habit.
What people want to is, they want an inspiring work, and they want to be able to get things done. How we can measure simplicity or the ability to get things done in a company are things like, employee retention levels, consistent growth-not just a business as usual stuff but new bottom line growth. There are simplified companies on average, that are able to charge between 6% to 10% more for their products, versus other brands. They have higher customer satisfaction level. Again, they have higher retention level, and employees say within their companies, they have systematic processes to actually getting rid of redundancies and things that don’t matter and they also have permission to say no.
Some of the things are system things like they have quarterly meetings to kill stupid rules, to kill stupid meetings, to eliminate reports that don’t matter anymore. They make those things a habit, but they also have permission from good leaders that can kill complexity behaviors, so that they are allowed and encouraged to, and in fact measured on their performance reviews, to say no. Some of the companies that do that are places like, P&G, GE, Vancity Credit Union. There are many people now that are putting metrics in place and simplification teams to make this a habit. You’re going to see a lot more stuff internally getting resourced, as well as reviewed in terms of simplicity teams and even chief simplicity officers. It’s a very exciting time, and this is becoming a real way that people want to work.
Sanjog: The examples Lisa gave, Ed, are from companies which are progressive and they are where they are because some of those techniques to retain simplicity. As you grow were actually put in on paper how processes were developed. But there are many, much more who are struggling and as they have to, not just, like because in your case you consolidated so whatever you had, you simplified it but now comes the time, when you have to add something new to it, which means you’ll have to shift gears again. How do you add to more, change processes, change reporting relationships and still maintain simplicity? Do you think it will become complex for a bit and then come back to simplified so you have to make it monolithic or make it complex before you simplify, only that’s the way you could grow?
Ed: I totally agree with Lisa on this. Simplification is your first step, and that’s what – when I joined the State, I wanted to make sure we had good core processes, good standards across the state that we could all agree on. That simplification had to happen. I’ve been telling my team; we are simplifying now, we are consolidating now, we are actually as a culture coming together so that we can innovate. I really think you stifle innovation if you’re not simplistic because if it’s a simple – If you can navigate the system very simply, then innovation can be fostered much easier. One of the things I did because of my background. I spent 20 years in IT in private industry but the other 10 years just after I started out after college, I was an industrial engineer in manufacturing, so everything to me is an assembly line. My background is – I had just in time manufacturing and continuing process improvement and zero defects and all of those things. I went all the way, and I have a Six Sigma black belt.
What we did in the State, is we wanted everyone to start thinking about how do you make things simple. Every time we redo any type of product, if we are taking a process from a manual to an automated state, the very first thing our teams look at is, is this the right process to even start with? Do we even want to automate this process? How we got that thinking in place is, we started about a year ago, training every single employee on Lean Six Sigma training. That’s 19,000 employees in the State. Every single employee in the State is a white belt. All the managers in the State are yellow belts. I’m personally a black belt, and I served in that in the manufacturing industry.
We have the mindset of; you don’t automate or innovate until you have an optimum process in the first place. It’s about having that mindset that everyone knows that, “IT is not going just to come in and replicate what we’re doing today. What they’re going to ask is to improve it, and then they’ll automate it.” We’re not replicating the past; we’re actually creating new more innovative and more efficient processes for the future. To me, that is innovation.
We’re not replicating the past; we’re actually creating new more innovative and more efficient processes for the future. To me, that is innovation.
Sanjog: Lisa, when we look at the whole process, so as someone is trying to introduce a new service or trying to shift things, that means the people who are supposed to work on it need instructions, people who are managing them need some reporting data and the people at the top, need to make sure that is an alignment to what they started out with. All of that means it’s going to be a shift for all of them. Do you think there’s a way to simplify or keep that shift simple?
Lisa: Well, yes. There are few things you can do, which is – aligning on what Ed was saying, are you have to make sure we all define the problem and what we want to do in terms of simplifying in the first place. Taking on just a manufacturing while more industrial realm, I would say from a human perspective, one of the things that you need to do when you’re inside in an organization, and you start this culture of simplicity, is you need to define what you mean by simplification. It’s much like innovation. We have this joke that if we asked people to define simplicity, you’d get 10 different answers. We worked with a division within P&G, who is actually starting a simplification effort with an engineering group. They identified the projects to simplify. I said, “No, hold on. First of all, did you say what simplification is to you and where you wanted to take you?” They paused. Because they just said it was common sense, it’s just inherent to everybody. Believe me; it’s not.
Everyone approaches it differently. I said, “Let’s define what simplicity is.” They did this research, and they came back, and they had 17 different bullet points for what simplicity was. I said, “Here’s your first problem.” We had to find what simplicity meant to them, in terms of how they wanted to approach it what the outcome was. They wanted to look at things that they could eliminate and that they could outsource. I said, “Great that gives us the first guardrails around what we need to do.” Then they identified just a couple top projects to tackle first. The reason I say that is, the first step is defining and the second thing is, don’t try and do everything at once because that’s the other thing where you get these false starts. Everyone says, let’s identify, say everything needs to be simplified, and then let’s do it all at once to start to do projects.
One thing that Merck did for example in Canada. They said, “We identified all these problems. We made sure that we picked the two that we think would have the biggest impact on, and then we tied a senior leader to each of those as a champion to make sure we were moving forward.” The two things they picked to simplify first were meetings. What was interesting about that is the reason they chose those things versus everything else is, those were the day to day thing that was picking up people time the most and adding the least value. The reason I’m saying that is you can get very discrete than what you want to focus on and create kind of a sprint on the thing.
Then the last thing is the time the metrics around it. How will you define what success is in terms of getting rid of complexity? Because people can feel simplicity, but they’re not very good at defining it, in terms of what they want as an outcome. Is it time saved, is it skills built, is it layers in decision making that have been eliminated, is it redundancies eliminated from the process, is its policies and procedures that we were able to get rid of? A lot of things were good in the first place when they were put in place, but they may have outlived their time, and people need to have permission and outcomes identified, so they can get rid of them. I’ll tell you the process of P&G in terms of streamlining, one of their engineering groups. They identified over 800 different rules, meetings, and processes that they could get rid of in short order and were able to do that within six months.
…the first step is defining and the second thing is, don’t try and do everything at once because that’s the other thing where you get these false starts. Everyone says, let’s identify, everything needs to be simplified and then let’s do it all at once to start to make projects.
Defining it, tackling just a couple things and then saying the metrics that you want out of it are really a great way to get people comfortable with simplifying and seeing the value in it.
Sanjog: Let’s build upon what Lisa just mentioned-you see something, you hack into it, make sure that we are cutting off anything which is redundant. In fact, more and more of us are dealing with this where we’re doing something new. We are walking into uncharted waters or looking at new territories. We have to create something from nothing, which means we have to get more in our hand before we can start hacking into it. When you try to get more, it means you want more information; you need to create new processes or more processes to get something started. At that time, we will not know what we really want. Hacking away becomes an impossible task. Should we take simplicity as a step, always when we’re trying to grow. That’s the main question. Ed, do you think simplicity can preempt, or it could become the core DNA of innovation where we don’t know what we are going to create, how could we simplify it?
Ed: This is something that actually in Nebraska is getting a lot of national attention. Accenture Consulting wrote an article, Agile IT Delivery Imperatives for Government Success. We were the case study. We have only one enterprise content management system, and all applications within the state must utilize that same database. All of our data is in one place. What we did was, two years ago set out to move from Waterfall to Agile, and what does that have to do with simplicity? Agile Development allows those to do sprints and talk to the customer and say, “What do you need now?” We break down a very large project into very small segments, but each of those Agile developers and the customers that they work with, signed statement of work that says they’re not just going to create the product, they’re going to use Lean Six Sigma processes to enhance the product – making it much more value-add, take out all of the non-value add steps. If they’re going to work with our team and store it adding applications to our enterprise content management system, then they have first to be optimized. If it’s something that’s white, just green feel, brand new, then we will walk through that and make sure that we’re not adding any type of complexity or any type of non-value-added steps to this new application for customers.
That was a very big cultural change. We ended up doing that by hiring college interns and converting them into full-time employees. That entire team is really made up of millennials; I would say the average age of our enterprise content management team is 25 at max. They’ve adopted all the new technology, they’ve adopted the Agile way of developing. In fact, none of them even know the old way of Waterfall, and that allows them to react very quickly to the customers’ needs. Every two weeks they produce a product, the customer gets to see the product, says, “Yes, that’s what we want.” Or “No, let’s move in another direction.” We don’t go more than two weeks without getting that customer signing off on yes, that’s exactly the product I want.
With it is inherent simplicity because the customer doesn’t want to have all this complexity and have to test that. There are always other people in the group looking at it going, is that really is that really a step we need to code. Just having that influx of the new development methodology of Agile has made us much, much better on innovation and streamlining the products that we built from scratch.
Just having that influx of the new development methodology of Agile has made us much, much better on innovation and streamlining the products that we built from scratch.
Lisa: I can just chime in. I have to say, I agree with what Ed said. One of the case studies in my book was with Cleveland Clinic, and they did the exact same thing, in terms of moving to Agile. They wanted to be able to do the sprints and move more quickly. One of the ironies around simplicity was, they realized that they could move more quickly if they could have quick – the 10-minute huddles every day to have check-ins with their team on the progress that some of their software development about how they move critical patients into the emergency room. The pushback people got was, “Gosh, I thought you were trying to move faster and simplify things, and now you’re adding meetings to my calendar every day for 10 minutes.” They said, “Here’s the thing, would you rather have these ongoing, you know once a week half day meetings or would you rather have these quick little 10 minutes meetings every day?” They realize that the quick little 10 minutes meeting was more frequency of them, the shorter times punctuated allows them to move faster. Sometimes it’s defining again what the simplicity means and service of what the outcome is you want to have happened in the end.
Sanjog: To that, Lisa, we know that, yes, we all want simplicity, but people are the cause of creating or introducing complexity. There are some inherent stigmas or habits or culture. Let’s start talking about the culture because there’s something which is making this happen and not letting it go away. Could you throw some light on the habits and what people bring from outside the company, and then the company ends up adopting unknowingly and unintentionally where it starts supporting complexity?
Lisa: I always joked that we create the beast, we become a slave too. Everyone always goes to work, we believe, with a few exceptions, with the best of intentions. No one is purposely trying to create complexity. In fact, many people are doing it unintentionally because they’re trying to move faster, solve a problem, or fix something for a customer. They just build on what they already know or make the habits that they already think they have to follow. This is interesting, we studied complexity, and there are really four parts to it. What makes your organizations complex, whether you’re profit or nonprofit, regulated or unregulated? Typically, what people will say is, industry regulations, government regulation, that something regulatory creates complexity for them. That’s very true. Those are outside influences that are in their sphere of concern not in control.
Those things are organizational complexity, moving to the center of the bull’s eye from regulatory to organizational. What we put in place are things like in organizational structures – silos, new roles, new reporting structures, etc. But what really bogs down people are the next two types of complexities. When you ask them what really they spend their day doing, what holds them back from getting more done, their answer is- tactical complexities and behavioral complexities. The tactical stuff is what you put in place to manage organizational stuff. What we do with day to day as leaders and managers, we put in more reporting controls, more reports, more meetings, more decision making, more layers, etc. That’s largely driven by behaviors which are risk, fear, power, and control.
No one is purposely trying to create complexity. In fact, many people are doing it unintentionally because they’re trying to move faster, solve a problem, or fix something for a customer.
As humans, psychologically, that’s what makes us want one more report, that’s what makes us want to have everybody in a meeting to see why A so to speak. What we talk to leaders about is, yes, they should identify the big systematic thing, they can really make an impact. Of course, like what Ed was talking about, brilliant big stuff. But what can really make it culture is by empowering everyone on a day to day level, to tackle the individual complexities that we have control over the sphere of control they can do. That’s starts with habits, and then that starts with tactics. The habits are one of the tools that we do or techniques we do, with companies as we say, let’s create our simplification code of conduct. Once that is identifying the three behaviors, for example, they either want more of or less of, that people can operate and know they can do every day to make simplicity a reality.
For example, they might commit to eliminating redundancies and unnecessary work whenever they see it, and they have permission, and it’s expected they do that. It could be that they will no longer create false urgency. They’ll only do things in a 24-hour, 48-hour period and not requested to be urgent every day. They’ll use jargon-free language when they communicate to think they’re straightforward, they’ll empower others to make decisions without them, and decision making is huge problems. What I’m getting at is, those are habits that people want to know that they’re empowered to do and once they do that on a day to day level, they save hours of time a week to do more meaningful things.
Those are the habits. What’s interesting about that is, we think the problems are really big and systematic but what really it is an individual thing that we put in place every day that we assume are the way we have to work and by changing that as a mindset of simplicity, people can move faster and feel better about the work that they do.
Sanjog: Awesome, in terms of the thoughts. Now, Ed, if we were to have Lisa’s playbook of simplicity and match that to what you’ve got done. Were you able to let people do their own thing, make it meaningful themselves or did it need some leadership guidance even more rules to get them to behave, or to start embracing the newer simplified organization?
Ed: It definitely took a leader they trusted and had the credibility that they would be able to actually act independently, and go after those inefficiencies that we had across the state. That was the big thing. The feedback I got from my team was, they were wondering, you’re making all these changes, Ed, you’re bringing in consolidation, you’re bringing in standards, you’re bringing in a whole new development methodology, you’re bringing in Lean Six Sigma processes. They were saying, what we were waiting for was, when you got that first punch in the mouth, how are you going to react? They said you reacted great. You just kept going; you didn’t get diverted, you kept going. Gone with your roadmap, with your vision. We knew then that if we got into problems that you’re going to be there for years. They literally said you took a few punches, you kept going, you shook them off, and you never let anybody slow you down. That’s a big thing. You’ve got to have a culture of trust. They’ve got to trust that you actually mean what you say and you’ve got to prove that upfront.
With our agile team, I provided the training because there was no way they were going to learn that on their own. We put out a lot of money to train really young people at the start of their career. Two years later, it’s paid off tenfold. We have lowered the rates that we charge. There’s a lot of pride in that group and as I tell a lot of agencies. The biggest thing that I did was, I told them I’m going to train you, I’m going to provide the coaching, I’m going to do everything to make you successful. But you have to personalize this and do it your way. The next thing I knew, they were on the third floor just below my office. I go down there quite often. They rearranged the entire floor because it wasn’t the working model that they wanted. They had screens up everywhere, showing their sprints.
All of this that they personalized and they took it to heart. Okay, we can do whatever we want, as long as we get the work done, as long as we achieve our goals. When I came down, and I saw that, I said, “Okay, you guys, get it. This is exactly what we want to see.” Then from that group, the other groups are now going, “Okay, well we want to do that same thing.” It’s really walking the walk and talking to talk and making sure that they know that when you say something, you’re going to have their back and yes, they can make a change, even at the lowest level that you’re going to support that change.
It’s really walking the walk and talking to talk and making sure that they know that when you say something, you’re going to have their back and yes, they can make change, even at the lowest level that you’re going to support that change.
Lisa: You know what I also love about what you just said, Ed, with other people who wanted to start to do it. I’m curious about that because I think my finding within organizations is just what you said, the simplicity is contagious, and it’s slightly envied provoking because people are like, “Hey, how come those guys get to do that? I want that.” That’s cool actually because that allows people to take on simplicity once they go through those. Maybe there are ups and downs, there’s this resilience they have to have, but once they get through, other people want to copy them, and that’s another way that it spreads organically versus having to be just a formalized process. I like that, what people should think about to really highlight and communicate your efforts because people want to replicate that.
Ed: You’re absolutely right, Lisa. It was organic. People ask me, “Well, how did you get other groups to pick up on the Agile methodology? Do you dictate? Do you say that they have to?” I said, “No. Absolutely not. It’s organic.” A great little example is, when this group of millennials who are out there and they start putting up their monitors and sprints, they ended up all the other people on the floor were walking over there saying, “What is that? We want to do that.” Exactly to your point, they were envious. Its like, wait a minute, you’re getting your own work area, you’re getting the monitoring, and you are getting all of the things that you want just the way you want. We want to get in on some of that. It was a little envy and a little bit of-well this is a common sense we’d like to join this.
Lisa: Yeah. I love that. What we like to say, you’re making common sense, a common practice. The fact that you got to do it organically shows that it was a really smart well-communicated effort. That’s excellent.
Sanjog: This is an excellent conversation here. Ed, the great story again. Lisa, do you think there has to be a chipping away approach to simplifying or you have to announce that we are going after simplification as one big initiative and then people are made aware, you set their mind that, okay, this is coming and then you go ahead and tackle it? What works?
Lisa: The efforts of where you announce it as simplification is one of our strategic pillars. Everything is tied to that, setting the signal and starting to communicate that I expect those behaviors, you’ll be measured by it, you’re supposed to be operating, not just with efficiency but also as a cultural in terms of the habits and behaviors of the type of work you want to do and that you should get to do. I like that. However, I will say that there are places that have announced things like that and they weren’t prepared to support it. It was like, a decade ago when people started talking about innovation, we’re innovative but then, they didn’t put any resources and money or processes behind it. Companies like Altria, GE, P&G, Vancity, TATA, they’ve all said; simplicity is one of our core operating principles. Some are better than others in terms of how they’ve supported it.
Now that said, there are other companies that to get the buy-in in the first place, had some either large business units that were more open, led by more maverick people that started it and created the envy. I’ll tell you there was one group within HBO, their DND group which was the biggest membership part of the organization that drove a lot of the subscriptions. They started implementing a thing we do with them; processes called “Kill a Stupid Rule.” They did one session together with the big group. They killed over 300 rules; they were so jazzed by doing it every month that they posted it on a Google Doc online, just to share with everyone and said, “Hey, you’re welcome to steal these rules. Kill these rules in your own organization that will help you.” So many people got up in arms that their boss wasn’t doing that and their group that it started to spread like wildfire. Why can’t we do that? Why can’t we do that? Then it became a big part of the organization to the point of where they started to take simplicity outside with their partners, and they started to actually kill a stupid rule sessions with partners on the outside, like Verizon, etc. Together simplify their relationships and make joint businesses better.
The efforts of where you announce it as simplification are one of our strategic pillars. Everything is tied to that, setting the signal and starting to communicate that I expect those behaviors, you’ll be measured upon it, and you’re supposed to be operating, not just with efficiency but also as a culture in terms of the habits and behaviors.
It can be bottoms up; it can be top down. I think top down is best, but a groundswell of envy is a good way to get it going to if you really want to make people move off the dime.
Sanjog: Ed, every time when we do it, it’s not exactly flipping a coin, but you have a 50-50 probability of making something successful. Do you think there are signs when you start on this journey of simplification, but it looks like a sinking ship? Should you cut your cords or you keep going till you sink or maybe float?
Ed: I think if you had a good business plan from the beginning if you really mapped it out and thought it through. Lisa talked about that. It’s really about, have you put the money in, have you put the time in, have you put the research in? Have you bounced ideas off of other people? If it comes out that if you present it as such a not – so common sense that people go, “Wait a minute, that’s intuitive,” then you’re going to be successful. If you can’t get to that point, then I don’t store it because it’s one of the things that it never gets better as you peel back that onion, so you better have a very good case going in or you’re not going to succeed. Because even though you’ve thought it out and done all you can to plan that change or that simplification, there are things that you were not aware of that are going to come up.
If I go back again in my manufacturing days, when you put that part on the assembly line, you better think it all the way through the end. Even when we did that, we found there were things on the assembly line that couldn’t be done, the way we thought they could be done. I would say, don’t start unless you’ve done all of the homework, you’ve put all of the thoughts, and you talked thoroughly to all of the people involved.
…don’t start unless you’ve done all of the homework, you’ve put all of the thoughts, and you talked thoroughly to all of the people involved.
Sanjog: Lisa, when a leader like Ed tries stuff, depending on how flat the organization is, you need your lieutenants, your managers to be on board and actually knowing to replicate or even do better than what Ed would have done, in terms of embracing and conveying the message and getting the culture built of simplicity. What does someone do sitting in a top-level position as a leader to make that happen?
Lisa: What do they do? There are a few things. One of the things I always like to do again defines the behavior. One is risk-taking. You might take a few arrows in terms of how you get the stuff off the ground. The other thing, frankly, I think is being resilient because they’re going to have to just be in it for the long term. They’re going to have to be very good decision makers. I think one of the best things about killing complexity is, you’re just going to have to be really good and swift in terms of exemplifying decisions. Can you cut out decision-making layers? Can you make decisions faster, so people can get that need for speed going? Those are some of the characteristics that we’ve seen really help people become, what I call a Chief Simplification Officer of their group.
The other thing I would tell you is the focus, because what happens with so many leaders is that they hear about simplifying and try to do too many things. Again, it is how you pick one thing at a time, focus on that, get results and then move on to the next. If you can try and do those types of things, being decisive, being agile and resilient, having focus, that will really help you have that simplifier sensibility.
If you can try and do those types of things, being decisive, being the agile and resilient, having focus, that will really help you have that simplifier sensibility.
Sanjog: Ed, what’s your message to other leaders who are trying to simplify their organization and bring simplicity in?
Ed: You have to have a compelling vision for the future and a structured, systematic communication. You’ve got to build trust or else they won’t follow you. You’ve got to surround yourself with lieutenants that are the guiding coalition. The people that if they’re getting on a bus, there will be a whole lot of people that would want on that bus with them, the respected folks in your organization, you’ve got to get them on board, and they have to be your advocates.
Sanjog: Thanks so much Lisa and Ed, for sharing your views on how organizations can actually build a culture of simplicity and use it as a competitive advantage. Thanks so much.