Elegant Solutions: Breakthrough Thinking the Toyota Way

An unusual post, but it is the New Year and we might as well start with a bit of reflection on innovation and elegance. Follows are excerpts from “Elegant Solutions – Breakthrough thinking the Toyota Way” by Matthew E. May. Thank you to Guy Kawasaki for pointing to this manifesto.

“An elegant solution is one in which the optimal outcome is achieved with the minimal expenditure of effort and expense.”

A big lesson – “Avoid the Temptations

  1. Swinging for fences. This is the “homerun or bust” trap, which invariably destroys a strong batting average over time. It carries with it huge risk, usually accompanied by high cost.
  2. Getting too clever. This is the “bells and whistles” trap, which can easily get out of control in an effort to outdo competitors. It carries with it the danger of complexity and customer alienation.
  3. Solving problems frivolously. This is the “brainstorm” trap, which is misguided creativity far afield from company direction. It’s a symptom of poorly defined work, and fraught with waste. There’s a reason we call it an organization.

Small baby steps and keep the ideas simple. I am certainly guilty of number 3, but I believe in the same breath that without these activities my truly elegant solutions would never come to bear.

“The pursuit of perfection is not focused on achieving perfection, it’s focused on chasing it. Perfection is unachievable…it’ll never happen. We’ve become impatient with mastery. If you can’t achieve perfection, why bother? Because you have to. Otherwise you’ll always be a follower.
At Toyota the mantra is: no best, only better. “

I love the idea that perfection is unattainable, yet is within our grasp. The idea of continuously redeveloping oneself and one’s art as a process of perfection is very inspiring.

“All artists work within the confines of their chosen media, and it’s the limits that spur their creativity. The canvas edge, the marble block, the eight musical notes—the resources are finite. So it’s how you view and manage them that makes all the difference.
And that’s the big question: Are limits preventing innovation, or enabling it?
There’s only one right answer. Innovation demands exploiting limits, not ignoring them.”

Limits of resources is a forever challenge to those working in every industry around the world. The Toyota concept of embracing these constraints and finding innovation is an uncharacteristic way of viewing these deficiencies. It is very practical to consider constraints for those who (in our context) manage businesses and IT controls. There is always a budget and unfortunately only 24 hours on that clock. The ability to work within these boundaries and excel is a challenging and worthwhile path.

“Keep it Lean
Complexity kills—scale it back, make it simple, and let it flow.
More is often just more. Unless it’s more simple, accessible, timely and efficient, which really means it’s less complicated and complex. When it comes to solutions, size and sprawl matter. Be-all, end-all, feature-rich solutions almost always miss the mark. Because they’re over-scoped and too complex. They’re usually proof that we lack real insight into our customer’s desires. Complexity destroys value, which is what matters most to the customer. The most elegant solutions always seem blazingly simple. “

The opposite of most organizations and product solutions that try to throw a kitchen sink at a problem. Addressing a problem in a simple fashion is key to controlling costs – emotional, capital, and intellectual. Consider implementing a complex application for a single task – will it be used? Will every feature be used? My favorite (and I admit I am an addict): How many features of Microsoft Excel do you use? How many versions have they been in the application (since the end of time you say?!) – why did you just buy another version to upgrade? Balance the simplicity with the problem at hand. Something that is paramount to addressing compliance and regulatory concerns. Documentation should be simple and direct. Controls should be clear and operating. Long explanations are not necessary (to auditors or lawyers) if the work is elegant.

Happy New Year!

James DeLuccia

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