Dilbert and the Art of Lean

In Scott Adams’ book “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big”, he argues for the value of lean as a principle in everything from decision making to one’s systems that are used in business and private life.

Scott Adam’s advice on lean decision making begins with choosing the simple plan first and foremost if you have a choice. “If you can’t tell whether to pick a simple plan or complicated plan, choose the simple one … simple tasks are easier to manage and control.”

Scott Adams uses the term simplicity when industrial and systems engineers would say lean. But he’s spot on that simple or lean processes reduce risk simply by reducing the number of possible failure points in the decision making process. Add poke-yoke or mistake proofing to the plan, and you set up something akin to statistical process control chart lines that say “when it goes outside these lines, do X”.

“Human nature … we’re good at following simple systems and not so good at following complicated systems.”

This fact is too often overlooked in process flows. What do you do when you’re trying to fill out government forms and take it to all the right people for approval? What do you do when the process flow chart for a PDM system looks like a spaghetti chart? In any application where you can design (or are in the process of re-designing) a system, aim for simplicity. This means making user interfaces and the workflows the interfaces rely on as simple as possible.

Customer service processes need to be simple, with clearly defined off ramps for how and when someone is handled as an exception. The simpler processes mean shorter training times for staff and users, less confusion when exceptions arise and fewer opportunities for errors or abuse of someone going around the approve process just to get things done.

“Simple systems are probably the best way to achieve success. Once you have success, optimizing begins to have value.”

This truism is closely related to the saying that the most successful complex systems arise from successful simple ones. First make a simple system that works most of the time, then add on the off ramps for various exceptions or escalation points for when something doesn’t fit the standard workflow. Making a very complicated system to handle every exception or concern up from risks creating one that doesn’t work at all.

First, design a system that works right most of the time, one as simple as possible. When you have a lean process, it is easier to adjust and adapt to suit real world systems compared to a complicated one that you need to change. Only after you  have a system as simple as possible that works in the real world is optimizing a good option – and it is more likely to be effective because you aren’t trying to optimize a complex system that is inefficient because it wasn’t a good fit to the user’s needs in the first place.

“Successful people and businesses have the luxury of being able to optimize to perfection over time.”

The first result of this statement is that your perfect process isn’t perfect if you spend so much time trying to plan it that you never implement it. The second is that a very complex plan that fails in implementation is a failure. In contrast, think of all the successful businesses that resulted from a simple flow chart/diagram on a napkin in a restaurant, such as Southwest Airlines drawing the triangle on the napkin saying we’ll fly from Dallas to San Antonio/Austin to Houston. When you have the simple working system, you’re working – and generating revenue. When you have the money flowing in, you have the resources to devote to improving the process or expanding on it. When you are struggling for survival, perfection is a luxury.

That concept is why Lean has grown in importance over Six Sigma and other quality standards since the Great Recession started – perfect is a luxury, while using less material and labor is a cost saving measure and eliminating waste in operations may increase production for relatively money. Scott Adams concurred with this by stating in his  book, “Another advantage of simplicity is that it frees up time, and time is one of your most valuable resources in the world.”

Lean’s attraction is the potential savings and impact on the bottom line, whereas spending money to make better items or services in a market that may not pay more for the higher quality doesn’t make economic sense.

Filed under: An IE in IT, IIE, iise, Lean

About the Author

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Tamara Wilhite is the IE in IT blogger for the IISE. She is a Six Sigma green belt with experience in IT, PDM software, the defense industry and recycling industries. She currently works as a freelance technical writer.