Complexity. Whenever this word is used to describe a process, design, strategy, or a customer experience, a sense of embarrassment fills the room quickly. We feel powerless. We feel that everything around us is chaotic and out of control. Executives are frustrated, and employees want to see action.

In a world with increasingly global operations, diverse workforces, longer supply chains, shorter product cycles, integrated technology solutions, and empowered customers, complexity seems to be the natural order. But does it have to be? Can you really afford the high costs, dwindling productivity, and failure of meeting business goals?

In the recent Knowledge@Wharton study Simplifying the Future of Work Study, sponsored by SAP, senior business leaders clearly are not willing to accept complexity and its impact. In fact, 51% ranked business simplification high in significant strategic importance to their organizations today and 67% believe it will still be just as important, if not more, within the next three years.

But how do you convince everyone that simplification is indeed needed? And how do you get there?

Get your definitions straight: Simplification and Improvement are not synonymous

First, you and your organization must get one thing straight: Improving processes, operations, and experiences is not simplification. Believe me, this is important – just as someone I met recently convinced me.

This executive spoke at length about an initiative to simplify a critical business process. When he instructed his team to move forward with the project, he only said, “Go and improve this business process.” Not once did he utter the word “simplify.” After a lengthy effort, the project struggled to deliver meaningful change because the process was already extremely efficient.

As my contact learned, simplification is not improvement and improvement is not simplification. Teams get confused without clear leadership.

Talk is cheap – put your desire for simplification into action

Lately, every study about the Future of Work has echoed a common concern among surveyed employees. When it comes to their business leaders, they don’t want to hear rhetoric about change – and the same thing is true with simplification efforts.

The Knowledge@Wharton survey revealed that only 27% of employees believe the day-to-day actions of senior leaders are strongly aligned with the stated importance of business simplification. Meanwhile, only 17% think their business’ simplification efforts are very effective.

Employees want their leaders to show they’re serious by simplifying how they go about their daily responsibilities, interactions, and decision making. If this way of doing business becomes successful, employees are most likely to adopt their leadership’s example as a best practice.

5 ways to get started on your journey to simplification

There’s no doubt that change (especially simplification) must come from the top in both words and action. Executives need to take charge, embody, and own simplification – conveying its importance, planning effective programs, measuring success, and rewarding progress.

Here are five best practices that can help you get underway on your path to simplification:

  1. Talk when you’re ready to act – no sooner. Show employees that you’re serious about simplifying the business – before you even breathe a word about it. Take a look at how you go about your day. Is it easy to arrange a meeting with you? Can your employees interact with you without going through loopholes? And do your decisions appear to come about effortlessly? Once you can say “yes” to these question, you’re ready to discuss simplification initiatives once you’ve created a plan of action. Executives who introduce the need for simplification without embracing the concept themselves and without have a concrete plan ready may find their credibility compromised.
  1. Let simplification stand alone. Do not – I repeat, do not – merge your plans for simplification into other “improvement” initiatives. As shown in my earlier example, it does not work. Make sure your simplification program has own concrete goals, performance indicators, budget, and support.
  1. Do your own company diagnostics. Find out what people in your organization think; you may be surprised by what your employees have to say. In the Knowledge@Wharton study, respondents cite advice such as “Reduce barriers to change,” “Reward efforts to simplify,” “Communicate more,” among others. By understanding their opinions, you can identify simplification gaps in your company, the temperament of your workforce, and the best way to move forward. Simplification will not happen overnight, and it may take several iterations to make a process, operation, or experience truly simple. Even small, incremental changes can make a world of different to those impacted by it.
  1. Identify and support natural leaders. Find your internal simplification champions. Look around and you’ll spot people who understand and fully believe in the concept of simplification. The Knowledge@Wharton study revealed that most employees have some experience with simplification, whether it’s in simplifying business processes (84%), decision making (82%), or operational practices that went beyond their core team (52%). With numbers like that, it’s quite possible that over half of your workforce are already on board the simplification bandwagon.
  1. Benchmark your progress. Like any other initiative, you need to check the pulse of your organization and its receptiveness towards simplification every once in a while. Compare your business processes with those of your peers to identify processes that are ready for simplification, provide guidance on a simplification framework, and start thinking about next steps and the overall road map on your simplification journey.

Interested in simplifying your business?

Read more about the latest findings from the Knowledge@Wharton study Simplifying the Future of Work Study, and join the conversation at #FutureOfWork.

This blog post originally appeared on SAP Business Innovation at http://blogs.sap.com/innovation/human-resources/why-simplification-is-important-get-started-02361804

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