Simple solutions

Keep it simple

Many organisations talk about keeping it simple - but only few manage to do it.

Complex solutions often find their way to the drawing board, but they never see the light of day – because they are too complex to implement. If the basic idea and the purpose of a solution cannot be explained in a simple way, then how is it possible to implement the idea in large organisations or in entire populations?

Keep it simple

It is actually pretty simple. When you ask successful people how they became successful, they often start by saying “it is actually pretty simple ...” – and then they explain the main idea of the approach.

  • The Norwegian cross-country skier Björn Dählie’s tactics for winning more gold medals in the Olympics and World Championships than any other cross-country skier were simple: “I start out at my maximum effort – and then I increase”.
  • The battleship HMS Dreadnought’s tactics for winning naval battles in the time around World War 1 were simple: fewer and bigger guns (i.e. focus).
  • Rynkeby Foods A/S’ strategy for doubling its top line and tripling its bottom line was simple: fewer products and fewer brands for a larger market (i.e. focus).
  • Southwest Airlines’ strategy for achieving success in one of the toughest marketplaces – the domestic travel market in the US – was also simple: one single type of airplane (Boeing 737) and an airline network matching this plane (i.e. focus).

Complex solutions

There are many good simple solutions.
There are also many complex solutions.

Complex solutions often find their way to the drawing board, but they never see the light of day – because they are too complex to implement. If the basic idea and the purpose of a solution cannot be explained in a simple way, then how is it possible to implement the idea in large organisations or in entire populations? Especially if the goal is to get these large groups of people to embrace the solution and feel ownership of it.

Inspiration for simple solutions

The introduction of a new Rynkeby product with new ingredients (e.g. new fruits) and new packaging aimed at a new customer segment (e.g. home freeze ice) will affect most of the organisation.

If Southwest Airlines were to buy a new type of airplane, it would take training of pilots, mechanics, flight attendants etc., new spare parts in stock in several airports, definition of a new parameter for the staffing schedules etc.

There are many reasons why we often develop and implement complex solutions.

Over time, a solution system can become complex, which partly explains why old organisations often have more complex solutions than young ones. Perhaps you lack insight and experience to identify the best simple solution. Perhaps you, unintentionally, want to demonstrate your knowledge and capability, thus making the solution more complex than necessary. Or perhaps you lack resources or time to make the solution simple. The last part may be illustrated by a quote by Mark Twain:

I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead

- Mark Twain

Finally, new technological possibilities and knowledge may render simple solutions possible, which were not possible before.

At Rynkeby, the product portfolio had grown over the years. The total amount of products peaked in 2010 with more than 700, the majority of which were considered niche products, which had been part of the product portfolio for many years, and still were, due to historical reasons.

Many of Southwest Airlines’ competitors are large, well-established and old airline companies. Their airline network, fleet and customer groups are the result of many years in the market, and the network is very complex and heterogeneous. These old airline companies are trapped in the very system that they have spent years developing; thus, they are not able to quickly emulate the success of Southwest Airlines.

Ripple effects

An important aspect of implementing new solutions is that the solutions to a problem almost invariably affect the system where the implementation takes place in up to several secondary systems.

A complex solution will, thus, most often spread its complexity to corners of an organisation that you could not have anticipated. A simple solution, on the other hand, will foster other simple solutions.

Inspiration for simple solutions

Developing and implementing simple solutions is often a challenge, but most leaders see the advantage of breaking the code and pursuing a simple solution. Thus, we need good sources of inspiration to create simple solutions.

Even though it is more than 100 years after the launch of HMS Dreadnought, it is an example of a beautiful, simple solution, which may provide inspiration for developing and implementing other simple solutions. HMS Dreadnought is a holistic example – not least in relation to the aspect of ripple effects – but its strength lies primarily in inspiring an intelligent and challenging dialogue about the solutions in our organisations.

Keep it simple

HMS Dreadnought 1906

HMS Dreadnought was launched in the autumn of 1906 by the British Royal Navy. Many of the ideas behind the design of HMS Dreadnought had been in the making for quite some time, but the ship was built in the exceptionally short time of one year and one day, which at that time was considered extremely fast.

The impressing construction time is the first of many advantages of the Dreadnought – and, as it turned out, there were many more advantages of the ship.

The Dreadnought became an undeniable success. Towards the end of 1906, all other major seafaring nations at that time had decided to build battleships based on the same basic idea as the Dreadnought.

All battleships of this size that were built after the same idea – meaning all battleships – were subsequently referred to as Dreadnoughts. If you read about one of the world’s largest naval battles, the Battle of Jutland on 31 May 1916, you will notice that the British and German fleets first and foremost are summed up by how many Dreadnought-class battleships each side could muster.

HMS Dreadnought was such a great success that all large battleships designed before 1906, or which were built after the old principles for battleships, were referred to as Pre-Dreadnoughts. That is a rare success. Imagine a new make of car that renders all old cars obsolete. For instance a car of the make Pre-Tesla.

Innovative simplicity

HMS Dreadnought was an innovative new battleship in more than one way. The ship was the first of her size to be powered by Charles Parsons’ newly invented steam turbine. With a top speed of 21 knots, HMS Dreadnought was the world’s fastest battleship – and she might have been even faster – but it was found more important to increase the armour of the hull instead of making her even faster.

The most innovative feature about HMS Dreadnought was simplification. HMS Dreadnought only carried 10 heavy guns of 12-inch (305 mm) calibre, whereas the philosophy behind Pre-Dreadnoughts was to carry as many guns on board as possible and as many different types of calibre as possible. The idea behind Pre-Dreadnoughts was a floating fortress. Thus, HMS Dreadnought represented a new way of designing battleships.

Consider the difference for a moment. The Dreadnought is a very simple ship with five 12-inch twin-gun turrets – and then nothing else than a streamlined deck and hull.

Pre-Dreadnoughts (e.g. the Japanese battleship Mikasa) carry different types of large-calibre guns, a number of various types of medium-calibre guns and some small-calibre guns. The deck is packed with guns of various calibres.

Imagine the ships in battle. Imagine the maintenance work. The training exercise. The ship in harbour – and the departure from the dock. The construction of the ship at the shipyard.

Keep it simple

The advantages

If you compare the advantages and disadvantages of HMS Dreadnought, and especially the innovative idea of reducing the number and types of guns, the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages.

Identifying and discussing the advantages is a good exercise for a management group or another group that is about to simplify something in their organisation.

The exercise will result in a long list of advantages – and it may turn into a competition of finding the most advantages.

Here is a selection of the most significant advantages:

Competences and manning

The quality and flexibility of the manning of the guns during battle and in the maintenance task were a major advantage. Training was easier. When someone was injured or died during battle, they could easily be replaced, because many were trained in manning the same kind of gun.

Stock management and quality defects

Optimisation of stock management of ammunition and spare parts for the guns – thereby avoiding “stock-outs” and minimising stock investment. Elimination of quality defects in the choice of ammunition – there was only one kind of ammunition, so you would never choose the wrong one in the heat of battle. It was also easier for the purchasing manager to negotiate bulk discounts with the ammunition supplier, and it was easier to load ammunition (and spare parts) on the ship, and, in some situations, it was of vital importance to quickly get out to sea again.

Building time and costs

The first Dreadnought was, as previously mentioned, built in the exceptionally short time of one year and one day, which was extremely fast at that time. The Dreadnought-class battleships were quickly put into series production – not just in Britain, but in all the major warcapable nations at that time. A qualified guess is that the Dreadnought-class was far cheaper to build than the floating fortresses (Pre-Dreadnoughts).

Range

It was possible to fire at targets well past the range of 11 kilometres, which was the typical range of secondary guns at Pre-Dreadnoughts. Thus, the secondary guns at these ships became useless and the fight uneven as Pre-Dreadnoughts only carried few large-calibre guns.

Success rate

The teams in each turret could easily draw on each other’s experience during an encounter to quickly strike a target, which had not been the case with the different calibre guns on the previous battleships – the guns behaved differently depending on the calibre.

This was a decisive advantage of the HMS Dreadnought seeing that the success criterion of a naval battle is to hit the enemy as quickly as possible with most hits. Furthermore, HMS Dreadnought optimised this advantage by being the first ship to install electronic communication between control turrets, control positions and transmitting and plotting stations. Thus, information about distance, firing angle etc. could quickly be used by all guns.

When you come to think of it, there is a very long list of advantages. For instance less weight and higher speeds, the number of people on board, the level of confusion and disorder on deck, especially during combat, the number of friendly fire accidents and the strategic clarity – the simple configuration of HMS Dreadnought forced the admirals to formulate a more focussed and clear strategy.

Niels Teilberg Søndergaard
Niels Teilberg Søndergaard
+45 3085 8080

Insight and courage

Many organisations strive for beautiful, simple solutions, which HMS Dreadnought is a perfect example of.

What does it take to find the beautiful, simple solutions in a given situation? Two things: insight and courage.

The more complex a situation and problem we need a solution to, the more insight and courage does it take to develop and implement the beautiful, simple solution.

One of the most complex fields of science is nuclear physics, and one of the people who best mastered the many complex aspects of this field was probably Albert Einstein. Einstein led the way towards simple solutions within this complex field by formulating one of the simplest and most beautiful truths describing the energy of light: e = mc2.

Albert Einstein is quoted as saying:

Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex and more violent. It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage – to move in the opposite direction

- Albert Einstein

Insight and courage were also factors in the story about HMS Dreadnought. Originally, it was an Italian naval engineer who came up with the idea behind HMS Dreadnought. He initially tried to sell the idea to the Italian government, but they turned him down. Instead he sold the idea to the British Royal Navy.

In a way, most of us can probably understand the Italian government’s representatives. After all, the idea entailed sending Italian soldiers on board a ship carrying only 10 guns – normally they boarded a floating fortress. That took courage.

HMS Dreadnought and your organisation

HMS Dreadnought is an interesting case about a beautiful, simple solution, generating many second-order and third-order advantages. However, the HMS Dreadnought case may become even more interesting if you apply it to your own organisational reality.

You can for instance ask yourself:

  • In which way does my own organisation resemble HMS Dreadnought?
  • Which solutions in my own organisation resemble Pre-Dreadnoughts?

Often, the comparison is nearly identical.

Competences and manning

Does my organisation focus on a few selected core competences? Should we focus on developing and maintaining many different types of competences, not all of which are strategically important to us, but we would not be able to run our business without them? Have we outsourced those competences which we are not very good at ourselves and instead focussed on having a lot of skilled people in our core areas? Are we in a situation where a couple of terminations would make it extremely difficult for us to run our business?

Stock management and quality defects

Many strong-performing companies, which over time have established a large and complex product portfolio, are fully aware of the disadvantages related to this type of portfolio. Many of them also know how difficult it is to simplify a large and complex product portfolio, even though maths tells us that less than 20% of the products generate more than 80% of the top and bottom line. This may go on for several decades – right up to the point where new competitors penetrate the market with a new and “clean” product portfolio.

A Harvard Business Review article on complexity provides an example where a car manufacturer gives the buyers the option to select a tinted windshield. Seen in isolation, it is a good business case, because customers who select a tinted windshield are willing to pay more for it than the actual additional cost of it. However, the process involves a lot of spillover costs and prolonged delivery time. Another disadvantage is the chance of errors creeping in during the assembling phase – in the case of HMS Dreadnought, you would never end up with the wrong ammunition.

Building time and costs

Here we have many examples. Among the more well-known examples are some of the government’s failed IT projects. Some of these projects are shut down during the course of the project – the solution simply becomes too complex (e.g. Polsag). Other projects implement a solution that is up and running for a short period of time, but the solution is simply too difficult to operate and maintain, resulting in a quick shutdown (e.g. Amanda).

Scope

Are you interested in targeting your resources or spreading them thin on a broad range of projects? How deeply can you penetrate the market and with what effect if you are to market 13 brands – and what effect can you achieve with the same amount of money for only two brands?

Success rate

How easily can you target your customers? If you have a simple product with a simple price structure, which everybody can easily understand and relate their needs to, you have a better chance of targeting your customers than if you have a price model which the customer does not understand.

The list of examples of HMS Dreadnought and Mikasa (Pre-Dreadnought) in a given organisational reality may become long, but in most cases, the Mikasa list is somewhat longer than the Dreadnought list.

Time has rendered HMS Dreadnought obsolete

The Battle of Jutland took place in 1916, 10 years after the launch of HMS Dreadnought. For 10 years, it was paramount to have a fleet with as many Dreadnoughts as possible, and then, all of a sudden, times changed. HMS Dreadnought’s time was up. Torpedoes, submarines and later on airplanes became decisive weapons in naval warfare, and thus the design of battleships needed an overhaul.

A parallel can be drawn to most organisations and most solutions – the intelligent, beautiful, simple solutions also have their time, before they are made obsolete by new technology and ideas. Then it is time to develop new beautiful, intelligent and simple solutions.

Keep it simple

Southwest Airlines

Southwest Airlines is a good example of a modern Dreadnought. The passenger airline industry in the US is probably one of the toughest markets to compete in, and in this market, Southwest Airlines manages to turn a premium profit year after year. The long-established, large airline companies simply cannot compete with Southwest Airlines.

What Southwest Airlines has accomplished is simple and exactly the same as what made HMS Dreadnought a winner. They have committed themselves to one single type of airplane – the Boeing 737. Many of the advantages of HMS Dreadnought also apply to Southwest Airlines, including strategic clarity. Southwest Airlines only operates air services suitable for this type of airplane and their setup – they are not tempted to do anything that might add complexity to it and jeopardise their impressive bottom line.

Rynkeby Foods A/S

In 2010, Rynkeby Foods A/S carried out a kill complexity project referred to as “Growth Through Simplification”. HMS Dreadnought was used as the main idea behind the solutions, and the project provided a platform for Rynkeby’s new strategy where one of the three mustwin battles focussed on changing the production from Mikasa to Dreadnought.

HMS Dreadnought became a key story, which helped explain the ideas behind the strategy – not just in relation to production, but also the intention to reduce both the number of products and the number of brands. Another main goal was to simplify the strategy, which had become quite complex and thus difficult to communicate.

The purpose of the project was to double the turnover and triple the bottom line.

The figures

The targets of the project were as follows:

  • To reduce the number of brands from 13 to 2
  • To reduce the number of production lines from 13 to 9
  • To reduce the number of products from 700 to 200
  • To focus the strategy on only 3 must-win battles

– and the strategy was boiled down to half a piece of paper.

In recent years, Rynkeby Foods A/S has come close to reaching all their declared goals, but complexity constantly puts pressure on Rynkeby, and especially the number of products is under pressure to grow. This shows that it is important to work with simple solutions on a continuous basis as well as making meaningful simplicity part of your culture.

Example

A good example from the Rynkeby project, illustrating that kill complexity is more about culture than anything else, is the two new power brands Rynkeby and God Morgon. These were the two strongest brands in Rynkeby’s two largest markets, Denmark and Sweden. 

God Morgon was set out to be the new premium brand. There was just one minor problem. The name was Swedish, so how would the Danish customers react to it? That caused some speculation and sleepless nights. Then a bright employee from Sales and Marketing – who was enthusiastic about the kill complexity mindset – got a great idea. By moving the small orange that covered the first “o” in God Morgon to the second “o” instead, the problem would be solved as it could just as easily cover an “e”. (In Danish it is “God Morgen” – in Swedish it is “God Morgon”).

Keep it simpleKeep it simple

Dreadnought is easy to imitate

In a business context, the example of HMS Dreadnought from time to time gets accused of being too simple, because sometimes it is easy to imitate a simple solution – but not always.

HMS Dreadnought was easy to imitate, and in early 1907, Germany, the US and Japan as well as other countries had launched Dreadnoughts, eliminating the competitive advantage of the Royal Navy. Even though the idea was quickly imitated, there is still an advantage of being the first to present a new, simple, intelligent solution. Sometimes first movers steal the entire market, and, at some point in time, it becomes too late to jump the wagon – just ask Nokia about smartphones.

It has been difficult to imitate Southwest Airlines, at least for the long-established airlines on the North American continent, since they are bound by their fleet consisting of many different types of airplanes and the airline network they have operated for many decades.

Dreadnought as a common language and catalyst

The strength of the HMS Dreadnought case is that it may act as the motivating and explaining force in a project and a change in an organisation with a wish to pursue more simple solutions.

HMS Dreadnought can provide a common language to talk about specific solutions in the organisation. When referring to HMS Dreadnought (and perhaps also Mikasa), it is easier for a person to understand what the other person is trying to explain and which idea they have had.

HMS Dreadnought may act as a catalyst for inspiring courage or perhaps even challenge us into making more simple solutions. If applied correctly, HMS Dreadnought may be what some people refer to as an “appropriate disturbance” in relation to people’s world view – this world view needs to be disrupted in order to create more simple solutions.

From IT over HR to marketing

Empirically, the HMS Dreadnought case can be applied to almost all contexts with the aim of inspiring more simple solutions, e.g.:

  • The organisation’s overall strategy
  • HR processes and solutions
  • Quality management systems and practice
  • The product portfolio
  • The marketing strategy, e.g. brands and category management
  • The production strategy
  • Enterprise architecture
  • Etc.

Dreadnought

When discussing strategies, change processes and an organisation’s future, the main focus is aimed at the process – and it should be – but it is also important to spend time, resources and energy on fostering the solutions of the future, and the two things are closely linked: process and solution.

As previously described, it only takes two things – insight and courage. Insight covers a wide spectrum, including experience and intelligence, but also the acknowledgement that it takes time and resources to identify beautiful, intelligent, simple solutions.

Courage is, to a great extent, about showing courage in your leadership as well as decision-making, and in many ways having courage is more simple than having insight, but in a given situation, it is often more difficult to show courage – exemplified by the Italian government’s rejection of the Dreadnought idea.

As it is a crucial point to have courage and fear nothing, the name of our vessel HMS Dreadnought could not be more fitting.