Interview with Mary Poppendieck about Leading Complexity

Watch the video in our LinkedIn post.

For those who don’t know you, can you quickly introduce yourselves?

Tom and I are authors of four books on software development and managing software development, bringing lean concepts into the whole process of managing software development. Before that, we had many many decades of experience actually writing software and managing software.

Why should leaders care about complexity? 

Complexity is a silent killer. It’s going to kill profits and it’s going to kill growth. Think about it like cholesterol. It clogs up the flow of money in your business and slows everything down. And also like cholesterol, you don’t know you have it until you look for it. There are different kinds of complexity: good that the customers are willing to pay for, your differentiator, and bad, that’s the one customers are not willing to pay for. Basically, it’s the root cause of your slow processes.

What would you say are the biggest challenges for leaders facing complexity?

Well, I think one of the most important things is to find a cause and then look for the solution. If you look at the cause – I’m going to point out two causes – one is additional offerings that you need to have. HP had all of these printers and they had a completely different software program for every single printer driver until they unified and had a single one that could be modified across. It saved them enormous amounts of money to do the simplification. Lots of offerings mean lots of setup time, learning curves, opportunities for mistakes, and scheduling and tracking overhead. Basically a huge increase in unnecessary communication and support costs. The other cause I’m gonna talk about is when the demand exceeds your supply. You have more demand than you can possibly handle. As I run across IT companies, almost all have that.

It’s like you open the doors and work comes flooding in and it doesn’t go out as fast. All of that work that is sloshing around is grabbing people’s attention and slowing everything down. It doesn’t need to be there if you would just let it in at the same rate that you let it out. Then you wouldn’t have all that extra junk sloshing around. There’s nothing you can do about it. You can’t do work any faster than you’re doing it.

But when you allow it to be there, your cues get longer, you don’t have enough workers to handle it, you can’t hire them, you have customers that are happy because they think you are working on the things you said but you are not because you can’t. You have to spend time prioritizing, you do multitasking. People start expediting special things to your process. You have to start something and you stop it and start something over here. You need to relearn everything you know because you need to start all over again. And you are promoting burnout.

So that’s why demand exceeding capacity is really bad for you.

Do you have any key messages for leaders navigating in complexity?

What is the first thing to do is find the complexity and eliminate the stuff customers are not interested in. That is your problem, not theirs. And the other stuff is if it has to be complex because customers want it. You need to exploit it. You need to figure out how to make that your key selling point. When you do offer complexity you have to minimize the cost.

What will the participants bring from your session?

We’re going to focus on the cost of complexity that comes from having more demand than you have supplied. As opposed to having extra offerings. And in the area of having too much demand, if that’s your problem, we have three fundamental concepts for you to focus on that I guarantee will help you get over that problem. One is to focus first and foremost on customer outcomes not on what somebody else says, not on profits even but on the outcomes of your customers. The second is to create a steady flow of work that’s even and very methodical and steady and flat. The third thing is to do one thing at a time.

I will go into the details of why these things are going to be very effective for you and how you go about doing them.

Thank you, Mary. Looking forward to your session.

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