Albert Einstein during a lecture in Vienna in 1921
If I was to sum up the whole concept of process improvement in one word it would be 'Simplify'.

Too often today we get lost in the morass of detail and unnecessary detritus which detracts from the key fundamental of process design which is to keep things as straightforward as possible. After all it was the great Albert Einstein who said "Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler." and by that I think he mean that the ideal approach to almost everything is to ensure that you have got the easiest, quickest, least complex solution to any problem that will actually solve the problem itself. That last phrase is actually critical and is often lost on people. it is very easy to make a simple solution which - when implemented- will not actually solve the problem (or - more particularly - will solve the problem in it's pure form but not in an adulterated form)

For example if I was trying to streamline an on-line ordering function the simplest it can be is to be able to buy something with 'one-click'. Our good friends at have mastered this level of simplicity but still there are sites around which make you go through several hoops to try and give them money. When I come across sites like that they generally don't end up received a purchase request from me. However even 'one-click' ordering does not work when you have 'non-standard' requests to make. These can include shipping to multiple addresses or requesting gift wrap options. This needs an alternate method of purchase. Yet again Amazon does have this purchase method included in their site. This is an example of making things as simple as they need to be but no simpler.

Recently I had cause to contact my bank to query a transaction on my account. Previously I could contact my branch directly and speak to a personal account manager who has been assigned to me. But recently the process has changed and I now contact a call centre who deal with the query. This works very well until I have a non-standard request. In this case I was asking for a refund on more than one bank charge. I was told that I couldn't request this over the phone. Despite the fact that I had answered four security questions prior to the discussion taking place they call centre employee said I would have to make a personal visit to the bank (my branch is 200 miles away) to speak to someone personally about this so they knew it was really me... I suggest this is a case where they have simplified the process BEYOND the state where it is useful.

I would imagine that if you were to think long and hard about processes you encounter on a daily basis you would find examples of both under- and over-simplification. Case in point would be a low-cost airline I have used recently who pride themselves on having the lowest fares. They was they achieve this is twofold - 1) They get the passengers to do as much of the work as possible and 2) they charge for everything they can that is not included in the ticket price. As far as getting the passengers to do as much of the work as possible is concerned, the upshot it that their processes are somewhat confused - as evidenced by the following example:

I had one bag and a set of golf clubs. The bag had been paid for as part of the check in (an additional charge over and above the original ticket price), but the golf clubs had not. The process was as follows:

* Queue up
* Give details to check-in lady
* Show passport
* Check one bag in
* Take second bag (golf clubs) round to another desk
* Queue up
* Give details to second check-in lady
* Pay for second bag
* Receive confirmation slip/receipt
* Take second bag (golf clubs) back to first desk.
* Queue up
* Give confirmation slip/receipt to first check-in lady
* Receive boarding card
* Take clubs to a third check-in area
* Show boarding card to guard behind glass screen
* Drop clubs on conveyer belt - hope they get treated well and arrive at destination.

16 steps including three queue's to check in one bag, one set of clubs and receive a boarding card. Multiply this by 180 people on a plane (although not all of them will have additional charges to pay) and pretty soon you can see the issue with the complexity of this particular process. Compare this with a similar flight I took to the US a couple of years ago:

  • Queue up
  • Hand passport to check-in lady
  • Put bags on belt
  • Select 'Aisle' or 'window'
  • Receive boarding pass
  • Drop clubs on an oversized baggage belt nearby

As you can see this was significantly less hassle and more efficient. Of course looking at this from the airline's point of view there is no efficiency to be gained by changing the process. There is no financial gain to them, merely improvement in their customer service. However the airline have made it perfectly clear that their priority is extracting the maximum amount of revenue from each customer rather than providing a quick and efficient service to them. Therefore a change to the check in procedure would not benefit them at all.

Have a look around your organisation or workplace. Identify where you have overly complex processes. Would they benefit from becoming simpler?

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