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Why can't stupid keep it simple?

Hardly a week goes by without another revelation of how America is faltering in the competitive world market place. First, it was steel and TVs, then, autos and apparel. Now, even an American bastion like electronics is falling. The reasons are many. The newspapers and periodicals concentrate on areas such as restrictive trade barriers, unlevel playing fields, cheap labor and government subsidies. These are all real competitive weapons used by our foreign competitors. But there is another element that is not often written about -- American management's love affair with complexity in manufacturing and administrative processes. There seems to be an unwillingness, or inability, to simplify processes to improve the United States' competitive position.

The first time I ever saw the acronym KISS -- Keep It Simple Stupid -- was in Tom Peters' and Robert Waterman's 1981 best seller, In Search of Excellence. They said that it was one of the key attributes of excellent companies, keeping things simple despite overwhelming genuine pressure to complicate things. Michael LeBoeuf in The Greatest Management Principle in the World quotes an anonymous source, "Good management is the art of making difficult things simple, not simple things difficult." Robert Waterman in The Renewal Factor states, "Develop a corporate direction, not a strategy. Keep your basic strategy fairly simple, straightforward, even dull ... complex strategies are often just exercises in self delusion." Jack Welch, former chairman and CEO of General Electric was quoted as saying, "Insecure managers create complexity. Frightened, nervous managers use thick, convoluted planning books and busy slides filled with everything they've known since childhood. Real leaders don't need clutter." There are literally hundreds of quotes and books on the benefits of simplifying manufacturing and administrative processes. Now, 11 years after In Search of Excellence, many, if not most, American companies are farther into the bureaucratic swamp than they were in 1981. Why is this happening? How can it be happening when the weight of academic and pragmatic evidence clearly indicates that simplicity is the answer? Were Peters and Waterman prophetic? Is management comprised of such low I.Q. bunglers that they simply cannot keep it simple?

After observing companies, particularly large ones, for many years, I would claim that low I.Q. is unequivocally not the problem. Today's managers are very bright, with great academic and I.Q. credentials. Here, then, are the reasons behind the problem:

* Bureaucracy, which has grown over many years. Instructions and rules exist to cover every possible situation rather than making every situation to be covered by a simple set of rules. These rules tend to be imposed on the mass of employees to protect the company from a small percentage of the workforce who try to take advantage of any system, any company or anybody. This is frequently looked at as culture and after many years, it is. But upper management frequently looks at changing the culture as changing the people, when really what has to be changed is management's process. Attack the small percentage of "problem children," then the proliferation of rules on the majority of good employees can be reduced.

* Many managers are out of touch with reality. They really do not know what goes on with the working level day-to-day. Like the three blind men grabbing the elephant, they get a very distorted view of the organization by what piece of the total they touch. Their perceptions are frequently drawn from public relations or special events. Sometimes, perceptions are made from asking people "how are things going?" Many of these people have been conditioned over the years that it is beneficial to be positive with upper management. The rare messenger who is bold enough to highlight management's problems is usually ignored, shown how inept his perception is or "killed" in some creative way. Sometimes managers determine reality by glitzy presentations that provide anecdotal evidence of where an organization is doing well rather than a complete review. These lead some managers to overload their resources while still feeling that everything is OK. This feeling is eventually shattered by reality and wastes the window of opportunity for improvement.

* Too many managers are inflicted with oversized egos and/or blind ambition. This disease is frequently fatal to entire organizations. These managers can be seen always looking up to determine what their boss (or even higher) wants. No amount of work or effort from the people in their organization is too much to impress their boss or even just to prove the boss' irrelevant or overly demanding projects can be accomplished. Glitz and quantity are the key measures for these managers and their frequently reluctant organizations. Program after program is piled on the organization. These managers become hyper when a new program with the latest buzz word cannot be introduced to impress their boss on the unquenchable thirst for upward mobility. A corollary to this is management that, says LeBoeuf, "needs better results but rewards those who look busiest and work the longest hours." This phenomenon is aggravated by the continual movement of the ambitious managers that feel obligated to implement new programs to validate their contributions and justify their continual upward mobility.

* Some managers are only comfortable dealing with complexity. Many have technical degrees and feel that running a business must be as complex as quantum physics. Some have been trained in an MBA program where everything is complex and analyzed to death. These managers feel that their personal worth, as well as their worth to the company, is based on the complexity of whatever they are dealing with. They seem to be paid by the pound when analyzing any issue. A corollary to this is the management process which, according to LeBoeuf, "needs simplicity but rewards those who complicate matters and generate trivia."

* Some managers (and many employees) are more computer literate than business literate. These workers are very knowledgeable and passionate about MS-DOS, but inept about W.E. Deming, F.W. Taylor or P.F. Drucker. Because of their ability to handle (not manage) large amounts of data, that is exactly how systems are set up. Companies would be much better off if they trained employees to implement simplification, cost/benefit and profitability before they trained/forced the proliferation of hopelessly complex, ineffective, non-results oriented computer applications. Like the saying goes, "to err is human, to hopelessly complicate a process takes a computer."

* Some managers are only capable of dealing with the surface issues. They constantly expose the whats or the ultimate goals without knowing the hows or the steps required to achieve these goals. These are frequently well-meaning people who are more dangerous to the organization than the resident cynic. These managers are responsible for the proliferation of the "program de jour." By the time the program mires hopelessly in the reality swamp, they have handed it off to some unsuspecting victim who will take the blame for faulty implementation. They, however, are already on the next polyannish program. These managers are constantly talking in high level philosophical terms rather than operational terms (the whats are so much easier than the hows -- many people talk about eliminating world starvation while no one has come up with an operational way to change the ugly reality).

That should be enough reasons to explain why American management systems and processes are unbelievably complex and bulky. American management spends a disproportionate amount of time managing a myriad of activities while the Japanese tend to spend the majority of their time on managing simplicity and results. The basics to accomplish such a system are simple to determine and implement:

* Establish a culture that awards simplicity and results, not activity;

* Work toward establishing an organizational structure that is simple (streamline the process before you streamline your organization/personnel or you will create permanent chaos);

* Flow chart all of your processes, both macro (company) and micro (specific operation). If you cannot commit your process to paper, you do not have a process. Keep this simple. Most entrepreneurs obtain the customer and competitive benchmark data in a visit or phone call to the customer and looking through a trade journal. Large companies depend on inflated staffs, multiple visits by large entourages and reams of data, reports and analyses;

* Listen to your processes. If you have just the data and manage it by continually improving the trend, you will be successful;

* Once the key data is available, determine the root cause (normally causes) keeping key metrics from reaching your goals, or higher;

* Prioritize the major issues/root causes and assign responsibility to a specific individual; and

* Monitor improvement and reward significant improvement.

This is a simple, not simplistic, process. Some organizations that have used this process have made significant process improvements. Other organizations refuse to use this type of process and struggle for long periods as to why things are not improving despite all of the talent and resources they are throwing at it. It is hard to get out of the activity trap, but reality in the form of downsizing or Chapter 11 has a way of getting organizations to think in terms of simplicity. It is a shame that so much time, effort, resources and personnel have to be sacrificed before management comes to grips with the management process.

Norman L. Mulgrew is the president of Effectiveness Associates in Richmond, Va., a consulting firm specializing in quality and productivity. Mulgrew earned his B.S. in industrial engineering from Johns Hopkins University and his M.B.A. from Loyola College.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Institute of Industrial Engineers, Inc. (IIE)
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Title Annotation:American Management
Author:Mulgrew, Norman L.
Publication:Industrial Management
Date:Sep 1, 1992
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