simple system
Queueing for the Proms 2008 on the south steps of the Royal Albert Hall (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


I’m sitting on the steps outside the Royal Albert Hall in London. Fortunately today it isn’t raining, but even if it was, I needn’t worry. These days the Proms have an excellent system for managing the queue – rather like the ones on the deli counters in supermarkets. When you arrive, you are given a numbered ticket, which guarantees your place in the queue. Once you have your ticket, you can wander off for a coffee or a snack, or take shelter if it rains, knowing that everyone will be admitted in the order they joined the queue regardless. It is not particularly sophisticated – but it is a simple system, and it works.

Simplicity is hard-fought-for: it does not happen by accident. Once a complex process or system is in place, changing it to remove unnecessary complexity is hard, just as all change is. Even stopping a simple system getting more complicated needs constant vigilance: otherwise, it is likely to gather exceptions and special cases, as well as extra checks that seem important, but which have a cost which is frequently overlooked. Just as nature dictates that the disorder of the Universe (or a teenager’s bedroom) increases with time, and that this can only be reversed by the input of work, so it is with organisations.

Why does it matter? Because a simple system is inherently more efficient and less error-prone. Have you tried to explain your organisation’s processes to a new joiner? If so, how easy do you find it to explain the judgements required if the process has branches (if this, then that, but if not, then the other), and how quickly do people learn to make them properly? Good governance depends on people following the rules. Complexity makes it more likely that people will make mistakes, and also makes it harder to spot when people deliberately try to get round rules. For an extreme example of what happens with complexity, think about tax codes: with complex rules and many special cases, expert advisers earn a good living, which must be at the expense of either the tax-payer or the tax-collector or both. While that is good for the experts, does that not make its complexity bad for the rest of us?

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