Keep Processes Simple, reduce complexity – The Wisdom of Bees!

For the last couple of years I have constantly carried a book with me which fascinated me from the first time I read a review of the book and subsequently bought it. The book in question is called “The Wisdom of Bees”, written by Micheal O’Malley Ph.D. So what has this book got to do with Supply Chain Management? And in particular my blog about The supply chain management world. Basically the book is about what the hive can teach business about leadership, efficiency and growth! Every time I pick up the book which I have read now cover to cover many times, I find something new or related to my work within the supply chain management field.

For the last twenty plus years I have been involved in implementations of SAP ERP and over the last decade been involved in eBusiness implementations, which are about streamlining, standardising and simplifying the business! However, the message of “Keeping things Simple” still seems to thwart enterprises.

All to often enterprises introduce a level of complexity into their processes or products that inadvertently undermines efficiency and effectiveness. That is, over time, corporate operations and goods become “Rube Goldberg” creations. Rube Goldberg was an American cartoonist best known for his drawings of complicated machines that performed simple tasks. Even today we still honour him through the many engineering contests held in his name. Individuals or teams receive awards for building the most convoluted contraptions to achieve simple outcomes such as turning on a light or breaking an egg. Although we might not all win a Rube Goldberg award, we unnecessarily complicate our work in many ways. I will briefly describe three of the major ones here, but keep in mind that this by no means exhausts the possibilities.

One common way that we over engineer products, processes or services is by feeling compelled to incorporate ideas of every conceivable constituency into the final design. The many quips about committees ( for example, the unwilling picked from the unfit to do the unnecessary) are nods to the ineffective solutions that many hours of group discussion can produce.

A second way to do ourselves in is by building on existing platforms that have inherent limitations, making it hard to do what you want! For example where I live there were plumbers working in the condominium, good people and true professionals. Some time ago there was a requirement to change pipe work ( originally done by different plumbers) and now certain parts of the system had to be changed. The supervisor explained that the original system would not be entirely compatible with the new requirements and new piping would have to be installed. If this was to be done it would introduce new routes of piping, some of which would have to be exposed, with different mechanisms to maintain the water pressure. This would be done over a period of weeks leading to disruptions and fussing around to get everything working in harmony. Ultimately, a decision was to taken to replace the old system rather than building on top of it and wind up with something that would not function properly. Obviously, the costs were a little higher for the new system, but there will not be extra to pay for endless work arounds and inevitable fixes and we have a system that runs smoothly.

Finally, we sometimes try to design for the exceptions, rather than create a product or process for the 99% of the people who are good law abiding citizens, we incorporate features that try and exclude or capture the 1% of users (abusers) who will circumvent our intent. I read a story a while ago about the State Liquor Control Board of Pennsylvania that was thinking about introducing wine kiosks at selected sites. It’s true that we do not want the intoxicated or under aged buying alcohol, so purchasers would have to would have to insert their driving licence and breath into a breathalyser to complete the transaction. The intentions are good, but the result is that you irritate the people that you want as customers while providing the under agers with a easy challenge.

So how is this relevant to Supply Chain Management (and what we can learn from the honey bee). When it comes to the hive, honey bees keep it simple. They get right to the point, concisely, clearly and without undue complications. There are several aspects of what they do from which we should learn. These will not overcome all potential barriers to simplicity, but keeping the following three maxims in mind will help.

Firstly, information exchange among bees is relevant. This way, the bee receives a signal, it knows it means something important. They do not communicate any more or less than is necessary. For example, there is no feedback signal in the hive that tells the bees to abandon a poor flower patch. That information does not help anyone. Bees working in the same patch already know the quality is poor and the information is not pertinent to foragers who work at who work at different patches. In addition, bees recruit unemployed foragers to good patches, it would not make sense to tell them about all the places not to go.

Secondly, Bees have clear standards that regulate their behaviour. The standards keep their mission on track and protect against wrongheaded commitments. When foragers return to the hive, they express their enthusiasm for the quality (example, the sugar concentration) of the nectar they have found through their waggle dances. As you can well imagine, if all the bees had a different idea of what constitutes a “Good” flower patch, then the colony could mobilise to the wrong place. An excited bee returns to the hive and recruits others to the site, some of whom then return to the hive to recruit more bees, and so on. Thus it would only take an errant few to get the hive going in the wrong direction. I have personally witnessed eager and enthusiastic authorities in enterprises mobilise people and resources around new processes that absolutely made no sense at all and, in retrospect, would have been difficult to justify had the definition of desirable patches of business “nectar” been clearly established from the start. The integrity of communication is possible because the entire foraging force has a common criteria and understanding about the true value of one of its chief products.

Third, there is an elegance and parsimony to what honey bees do. At times, this involves dodging solutions that seem logical but may not be. Honey bees, for example, do not cross train foragers and receivers so that one may take the place of the other. That is, they do not employ task switching to try and balance their work capacities, minimise queuing delays and maximise the import of nectar. Instead they elect to pull from a reserve workforce of foragers. For honey bees, bringing in more workers to Exploit a ripe situation is more important than keeping a fixed resource such as the proportion of foragers to receivers perfectly balanced. It is fairly safe to say that where trade offs exist in the hive, the colony will favour the equivalence of revenue intake over nifty accounting and administrative rigour.

The best plans are ultimately the simplest one involving clear, direct and uncomplicated communications and actions. Colonies execute with little waste in resources, communications and personal energy as possible. I grant you that the honey bee has had a long time to work things out, but their wonderfully successful society remains brilliantly straightforward.

Simplicity is a consequence of knowing what you are talking about, doing and want. In part , achieving clarity of perspective and direction depends on the use of a common method of analysis to examine problems. A standard approach provides organisational members with a mutual vocabulary and framework for defining concepts, proposing relationships, conducting tests, assessing consequences, determining goals, and, in turn, putting the proper mechanisms in place (example feedback and tracking).

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