Sunday, November 06, 2005

The killer app.

KISS. Keep It Simple Stupid.

Old saying. Needs updating. How about Keep It Simple Smartie?

Simple is for smart people.

I was helping a new customer start up a recycler this week. The company was located in a beautiful area of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

Nice plant. Owned by a Fortune 100 firm and working hard to do things right. It was my first visit and the engineer I'd been dealing with on the phone and eMail gave me the full plant tour. She carefully led me through a very modern facility packed with complicated production systems.

I want every recycler to run perfectly, of course, and this was no exception. We gathered a group of machine operators and maintenance folks around our system for the equipment start up and training. What spooked me was the unexpected arrival of the Maintenance Director, looking skeptical as hell.

Now, a Maintenance Director is not the janitor. A Maintenance Director in my world is typically responsible for keeping many millions of dollars of unbelievably complicated equipment operating. Electrical systems, hydraulic systems, fluid systems, mechanical systems, and often hardest of all, human systems. All the time. Under severe conditions. Often with bunch of people working for them. Typically with no support from idiot vendors. Often less than that from the people who write their budgets.

Stuff can go wrong in a million directions every day for Maintenance Directors. It’s their job to claw through complexity and keep things running. Much like most of our lives.

We fired up the recycler. After you test the fluid flow, the next step is to hit these systems with oil. In the recycling world, this is where rubber meets the road.

In spite of the many scenarios I’d conjured up that predicted gravity would fail to operate in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan on that specific day, my fears proved unfounded. I was wrong. Gravity works in the UP all the time. I have proof.

What was really interesting was the response of the Maintenance Director.

He had circled the recycler a couple of times while I walked him through the details. The most complicated thing I could find was the single air line that ran our system, so I talked about that trying to sound smart. They'd paid good money for this thing and I wanted him to like it.

In the background, fork trucks flew past, while a dizzying array of production equipment churned, much of it run by control panels as big as your front door.

He looked at me without expression and said, "This is really simple."

I couldn't tell what he was thinking. Did he think he overpaid? The recycler was ripping oil out of their production fluids. He had to see that. What was the problem?

Then he said it again. No expression, "This is really simple."

Now, if you remember that I’m the guy who thinks gravity might fail under certain circumstances, you can imagine how I fill up these pregnant, oh-my-god-where's-this-going pauses.

Then he smiled widely, reached out and shook my hand. "Thank you", he said. "Simple is exactly what I need".


In fact, simple is exactly what most people need.

There is a nice cover piece in the Nov. 2005 Fast Company titled the beauty of simplicity. Good story, by Linda Tischler.

The hook is, "Simplicity. Google’s secret weapon." The article focuses on Marissa Mayer, Google’s guru of look and feel. It open with this proposition: “Making it simple is the next Big Thing.”

Just like my Maintenance Director, just like Marissa and Google, most of us are bombarded by complications from every direction. New stuff is good, but we’ve got to be able to fit it in easily or it’s doomed to failure.

Think of what’s swirling around you now. The Fast Company article says, “By one estimate, the world produced five exabytes (one quintillion bytes) of content in 2002 – the same amount churned out between 25,000 B.C. and A.D 2000”.

It often feels like 4 of those exabytes are in my eMail folder.

You don’t have much spare space in your life. Potential customers and partners of your emerging enterprise don’t have that space or time either.

When you do a Google search, you’re executing an equation with 500 million variables, ranking 8 billion web pages for you. Before you can snap your fingers.

Marissa Mayer at Google approaches the issue in this way: “Google has the functionality of a really complicated Swiss Army knife, but the home page is our way of approaching it closed. It’s simple, it’s elegant, you can slip it into your pocket, but it’s got the great doodad when you need it. A lot of our competitors are like a Swiss Army knife open – and that can be intimidating and occasionally harmful.”

Our small band of co-workers won the small business New Product of the Year for the whole country this year, awarded by the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE). That’s the highest professional certification engineers can achieve in the US. Why did we win? Basically because we made something complicated simpler. I’d love to sound smarter, but that’s about it. Design simplicity leads to successful results.

When you look to create or grow your product or service, always look to make the interface simpler. You need to do the complicated execution and back office stuff better than anyone else, but the interface must be simple or your enterprise will tank.

Reverse the design of your products and services. Reverse the design of your enterprise. For the specific problem at hand, start with your answer.

“Yes. We fix that. It’s simple”.

Want sustainable work? Think simple.

You're in the middle of the next killer app.

Fast Company article not yet posted. Will link as soon as it’s on line

Worse is better Wikipedia entry about the New Jersey style of software design with wonderful implications for ALL design: Simplicity, Correctness, Consistency, and Completeness.

Occam's Razor Given two equally predictive theories, choose the simpler. Wikipedia

National Society of Professional Engineers

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