In our work we encounter five forms of complexity that are highly interrelated: strategy, customer, product, organization and process, including IT. Most clients engage us to address the single most visible symptom of complexity; for example, fixing rampant SKU proliferation that is wreaking havoc in the supply chain and the sales channel, or streamlining an excessively complex process that is hampering their time to market. We have developed a methodology to addresses each type of complexity, but we found that addressing the root cause of the problem many times requires tackling issues outside of the scope initially anticipated.
The complexity in a big organization emanates mainly from the "nodes"–or the points where business units, functions, geographies and management layers cross. Nodal complexity of this sort hamstrings many companies–every one of these interactions adds cost and confusion, draining the focus and energy of senior executives and good managers.
Traditional approaches to reducing structural costs and increasing efficiency usually fail to address nodal complexity. But there’s a bright side to this picture as well: An attack on nodal complexity–because it simultaneously affects all the elements that intersect at that node–has a large multiplier effect on business performance. In fact, in our experience, reducing complexity at the nodes creates between three and four times as much value as the traditional approaches to right-sizing and functional excellence.
A useful way of analyzing the level of complexity in your company–and separating complexity that’s beneficial from complexity that hurts the business–is to begin from a base of zero. Imagine, for example, that your company produced just one product or service with no options or varieties, sort of like Henry Ford’s classic Model T. A manufacturer with only one product would still need a supply chain, a factory, a distribution network and a sales-and-marketing function. But it could greatly simplify its IT systems, its distribution and sales efforts, and its forecasting.
The point of the exercise, of course, isn’t to go back to the days of the Model T, which, after all, succumbed to the greater variety offered by General Motors. The point is to determine your zero-complexity costs, and then assess the costs of adding variety back in.
In a tractor plant, for example, you wouldn’t need a scheduling system for one or two models, but you probably would for four. Often the cost curve has just this kind of "knee"–a step change triggered by adding one more model or level of variety–and you can determine whether moving beyond the knee is worth the additional expense. You can also assess the benefits of innovation, and determine the focal point where a given innovation overshoots what most customers want and are willing to pay for.
Model T also puts in place the processes and practices that keep complexity out. Similar kinds of analyses can diagnose business strategy, customer, organizational and process complexity.