The Three Cs of Simplicity

The Three Cs of Simplicity


Have you ever heard the expression: "The right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing"? I thought of this phrase recently when I got caught in a construction bottleneck on the Whitestone Bridge. It wasn't that construction was unusual (if you've ever driven in the New York area you know what I mean); it was that the construction was initiated during two of the busiest traffic weeks of the year. In addition, the US Open Tennis Tournament, various baseball events, and people driving to the airport for end-of-summer travel were making the area around the Whitestone Bridge even more congested than usual. I wondered why these repairs hadn't been done earlier in the summer or later in the fall. And if not, couldn't there have been other contingencies (e.g. re-routing or police facilitation) to better manage the flow?

It's easy from a "user perspective" to raise these questions. But the reality is much more difficult. There are many different agencies and institutions that all play a role in New York City traffic — the city, the bridge authorities, construction unions, the tennis association, police and emergency units, and many more. Since these organizations don't report to any single entity, there is no easy way to get them all on the same page. At the same time, they all have different schedules, priorities, incentives, and processes which complicate attempts at coordination. The result is that "simplicity" for the end-user is elusive.

Even inside organizations where there is a single hierarchy, we've all seen this complexity dynamic. A few years ago I was working with a GE business that was having problems with customer returns due to glass breakage in a particular product. To understand the issue, a team followed the product from order-inception to manufacturing to distribution to the customer. It found that the plant was saving money by placing the shrink-wrapped products on inexpensive pallets. But the forklifts in the warehouse were cracking these pallets so that the bottom layer of product shifted and broke — which wasn't discovered until the customers eventually opened the package. Of course manufacturing was not intentionally trying to cause breakage; it was only trying to save money. But because the left hand didn't know what the right hand was doing, the net result was lost money and dissatisfied customers.

Simple never means easy. But if we don't want to get ourselves and our customers stuck either in construction or process bottlenecks, we need to cut across the organizational boundaries and proactively pull things together. Just like "reading, writing, and 'rithmatic" were the three "Rs" of early 20th century education, we need to think of collaboration, coordination and communication as the three Cs of 21st century organizational simplicity. As John Chambers of Cisco points out, we now have technologies that allow us to dramatically improve our capacity to work with each other across space and time, no matter the organizational arrangements. But to do so we need to change our behaviors and mindsets.

Let's map out how our work interacts with others to create a total end-user experience — and let's actively engage with those other parties no matter where they may reside. Life's too short to be sitting in traffic.

What's your experience?

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Ron Ashkenas blog on Harvard Business Review. Join the conversation.

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