Create Robust Product and Process Designs – Reduce Complexity

What is complexity? There are several definitions that include the number of components in a product or operations in a service offering and the work tasks needed to complete them. Another view is the skills, equipment, and technology needed to build and assemble components or provide services. To the extent services and supporting processes have manual operations at IT interfaces, complexity should be reduced. If the work can be automated through digitization and in some applications customer self-service the impact of complexity from manual operations may be negligible.

It is important that an organization “Lean” itself out at a higher level prior to the deployment of Lean Six Sigma teams. This is because a systems complexity impacts its lead time, cost, and quality as well as project duration and required resources to execute it. It makes no sense to improve a process if it is going to be eliminated in the future. It also makes no sense to improve processes with very low or negative profit margins if they are non-core to an organizations operational strategy. The reason is that, after process improvements, non-core processes are not likely to be continued in the future. Often these non-core processes supporting services and products are discontinued or outsourced to other organizations.

Services are improved by eliminating operations, with their work tasks, physical parts, and other design components if they are not increasing value. Over time, these incremental features and functions are added without increasing value content for a service or product. In addition to elimination of nonessential features and functions associated with service offerings, those that remain part of a service can often be combined for customers in unique ways. An example could be the use of self-service when accessing online portals that eliminate manual work tasks from a process or forms that self-populate and only ask for needed information from customers. In summary, simpler product and service designs and supporting processes fail at a lower rate, all other things equal, and their cost and lead time will be lower because they can be easily assembled or configured for use.

The first strategy to reduce complexity is not producing products and services that do not add value, are unprofitable, or are not strategically aligned. Because NVA features and functions creep into products, services, and supporting processes at any time, some of them may not be in demand or direct labor, and materials costs are increased causing operational inefficiencies. An effective way to see this is to create an analysis that prioritizes them by their volume, profitability or gross margin, and strategic alignment. It is often a surprise to see which products and services have a negative margin. A major goal should be identification and removal of products and services that are not part of an organizations core product and service portfolio, and improvement of the efficient production of those that are. This helps to focus on more impactful project areas. A second goal should be to apply simplification, consolidation, modularization, and standardization methods to remaining products and services. An example is the proven methodology of Design for Manufacturing (DFM) used to simplify product design, eliminating and aggregating features, functions, materials, components, and work tasks.

A third method to reduce complexity is applying mistake-proofing to the simplified product or service, so it can only be assembled or used one way to avoid error. Mistake-proofing is a sequential evaluation to eliminate error conditions and errors. First an evaluation is made of “red flag” conditions that contribute to errors. Examples include poorly lighted and noisy work environments that increase the likelihood of errors. Other red flag conditions include frequent changes to jobs, poor training, lack of measurements, and no written procedures or standards. The strategy is to eliminate red flag conditions and then the cause of error conditions, so they do not occur. Complexity increases if errors exist because supporting processes are needed to manage the resultant mistakes. Although process improvement projects are routinely created to eliminate errors, it is better to focus resources on impactful areas such as red flag conditions that cause many different types of error and use best practice where possible. In other words, avoid having to deploy several improvement projects.

A fourth key concept for effective design and simplification is ensuring products and services can be assembled or configured very easily without the use of complex tools or procedures. A common example is designing a product in a way in which its components snap-fit together or for filling in online forms, there are dropdowns in templates, so customers are only able to use defined fields when entering data. Another example is designing an airport self-check-in kiosk, so anyone can easily check themselves in for a flight, e.g., by selecting seats and using baggage check-in options without making a mistake.

A fifth simplification concept is to effectively test new products or services, under actual conditions of customer use, to identify failure points, and to optimize performance prior to production and sale. This is done by building prototypes, running pilot evaluations, analyzing models, conducting simulations, and using similar methods to evaluate performance. Testing helps identify weaknesses when they are easier to fix. Robust designs enable improvement teams to focus on different areas. In other words, it is more effective to ensure something is properly designed than to fix a part of a process or redesign a product or service once it is in production to the customer.

The final concept is the application of continual improvement using effective measures to guide where to deploy projects. The performance measures need to be relevant to monitor, manage, and improve process performance and to also enable drill downs to lower level metrics components to take appropriate corrective actions. There also needs to be an infrastructure for managing project portfolios and execution projects as well as coordinating change management activities.

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