Removing Complexity from Your Processes Can Add More Value to your Product or Service

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Removing Complexity from Your Processes Can Add More Value to your Product or Service

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Often the root causes of problems are buried deep in the processes used to create your product or service. But even when the original source of the problem is hidden, you usually detect the complexity, the extra steps or unnecessary work, that was generated in trying to compensate for the problem. Complexity is the unnecessary, non-value-added steps that makes a process more complicated.

Typically, complexity stem from people repeatedly try to improve the process without an organized plan. They try to solve one piece by adding or rearranging steps, not realizing that they are altering other parts of the process. As the problems resulting from the alteration start to surface, more and more steps are added to compensate. Experience has shown me that almost all processes include steps that would be unnecessary if processes worked flawlessly.

There are four types of complexity in order of least cost: (1) errors and defects, (2) breakdowns and delays, (3) inefficiencies, and (4) variation. The first three can be addressed using Lean principles and the last one can be tackled using Six Sigma problem solving methods. When you are trying to improve your process, you should examine the process to identify areas, tasks and jobs that fall into one of these categories, then focus on finding the root cause.

  1. Errors/Defects ($)

When defects occur in products or services or someone commits an error work must be repeated and extra steps added to correct the error or dispose of the damage. For example, I had a company call me in to look at error proofing their high-speed packaging line. The line was experiencing high levels of unplanned downtime and defective packaging because of various errors during the packaging process. During my assessment of the situation I discovered that no one really had a handle of why the errors were occurring or had done any root cause analysis. They simply shut the line down and tried various fixes (tampering) to get it up and running again. This is the classic definition of complexity because they added no value to the packaged product. In order to error-proof the line and prevent the errors we looked for

the root causes of the problems.

  1. Breakdowns/Delays ($$)

Sometimes when products or services are not harmed but administrative or production systems break down, real work is put on hold and displaced with repair or waiting—and eventually rework.


  • An unbalanced workload in an upstream process results long wait times for customer quotes. Our solution: balanced the workload in the upstream process and reduced customer wait time by 61%.
  • A poorly maintained machine keeps breaking down, causing delays all along the process. Our solution: implemented mean time between failure methods to ensure the all machines were properly maintained. The delays were reduced significantly.
  • Redundant approvals for documents resulting in waiting for signatures. Our solution: implemented standard work procedures so that all tasks were executed consistently thus eliminating the number of approvals required.
  1. Inefficiencies ($$$)

Even when products/services are not defective, nor the flow of work interrupted. Sometimes more material, time, and movement are used than required. Often the inefficiency surfaced because something happened that upset the system, and the effects remained long after the problem disappeared.

In these cases, there is a clear reason why the system was established the way it was. At other times, there is no way of knowing how the inefficiency began. For example, by creating a spaghetti diagram of their movements in a metal working shop, employees discovered that they crisscross their paths many times to get the materials they need. No one is sure why the layout was setup with all this motion waste. We worked with the operators to redesign the layout and reduced the complexity of unnecessary motion.

  1. Variation ($$$$$)

When products/services are highly variable employees are forced to add steps to a process in order to deal with scrap and waste, or to rework material that is still salvageable. For example, the manufacturing group of an electrical distribution products company had learned to accept the level of engineering design errors as an everyday occurrence that fixing them became the norm rather than reporting them to the engineering group for a permanent solution. This fix-it attitude resulted in inordinate amounts of scrap, rework and overtime.  It didn’t even dawn on the employees that it’s possible to have products so uniform that such problems are rare. The key is to understand the nature of variation and how it can be studied and reduced.

  • Common cause variation

These causes of variation are predictable. Examples of common causes of variation are vibration, heat, and humidity that either individually or collectively cause variation in the product or service. Common causes are difficult to identify and correct.

  • Special causes of variation

Special causes of variation are not predictable. They are not part of the process all the time. Special causes are those which can be more readily identified and corrected, particularly when you know when they are recurring.

Six Sigma recognizes that variation hinders our ability to provide high quality products and services. Attacking and eliminating variation is accomplished by the Define- Measure – Analyze – Improve – Control (DMAIC) problem solving methodology and supporting tools that require management to make data-driven decisions.

There is a tendency to think of your organization as a place where numerous tasks are accomplished: labeling envelopes, stamping letters, testing product, calling customers, and so on. You must think of these activities as steps in a process. Precisely how did the stamp get on the envelope? Where did the envelope come from and how did it get there? These simple processes become complex over time because of inadvertent alterations to improve the process without considering the impact on other parts of the process. Once this occurs the organization can experience four types of process complexity: (1) errors and defects, (2) breakdowns and delays, (3) Inefficiencies, and (4) variation.

You can make your processes less complicated and add more value by using Lean principles to attack the first three types of complexity and accelerate the speed of all the processes across your organization. Six Sigma methods can be used to help you reduce or eliminate the costliest type of complexity (variation) in your processes.

Willie Carter, a Certified Lean Sensei, is president of Quantum Associates, Inc., an independent process improvement consulting firm. The firm provides process improvement expertise that optimize client’s processes, minimizing their costs and accelerating their cycle time enabling them to do more with less. Quantum Associates also offers a Lean Office Simulation designed to introduce service organizations to lean process improvement. For more information send a request to

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