The Tire Gauge Principle

Last Christmas a well-meaning friend gave me a digital tire gauge. It works exactly like a traditional tire gauge. But it requires a battery for the readout, you wouldn't want to get it wet, and I rather doubt that it could rattle around in my toolbox for a decade and keep on working. It's more complex than a traditional tire gauge, but it's not a superior product.

I've been thinking about unnecessary complexity lately, perhaps because I've had such an unusual schedule. I've been alternating between business travel and some long-awaited vacations, and the difference is painfully obvious. There were frenzied, caffeine-fueled dashes to the airport to make conference presentations in Colorado and Florida. There were business meetings in the Czech Republic and jet lag on the flipflop. But in between and afterwards, there were quiet mornings on the shores of wooded lakes, with bacon sizzling in the skillet, mist rising from the water, no cell phone service and no point in worrying about it.

I started with a paddling and camping trip along the northeastern shore of Lake Michigan. It's one of the most tranquil and enjoyable shorelines in America, probably because no one seems to know about it yet. You feel like you're hundreds of miles from civilization.

About nine days later I actually was hundreds of miles from civilization. I made an 11-hour trek north to meet some friends for a canoe trip into the Boundary Waters and to enjoy the simple rhythms of life in the northern wilderness. Make breakfast. Break camp. Paddle. Set up camp. Cook dinner. Sleep, and repeat. No sirens, no traffic, no blaring radios or lawnmowers. Just the cheerful trickle of the water as it slips along the Kevlar hull and the quiet, rhythmic splash of the paddles. At night, the haunting calls of loons echoing across the water. Uncomplicated. Simple.

It's not easy to keep things simple when you get back to civilization. Suddenly you're wrapped up in ten hour workdays again, with do-lists and deadlines. Buy your airline tickets early or it will cost a small fortune to make your wireless presentation at the Remote Monitoring & Control conference in Denver. Renew your passport or you won't be landing at London Heathrow to catch a plane to Prague for that meeting with B&B's European channel partners -- and you definitely have to be there because the list of channel partners keeps growing. Check your email. Check your voicemail. Finish your wireless presentation for the Industrial Society of Automation conference in Orlando next week. If you've just come back from a week in the Boundary Waters you can't help thinking that the speed and complexity of modern life aren't always an improvement upon the older, simpler ways of living.

Much like my old, battery-free tire gauge, a Kevlar canoe is a simple device. But it solves a difficult transportation question: How do you transport two people, their gear and a week's worth of provisions deep into the wilderness as they travel from one lake to another? The answer is a Kevlar canoe: strong enough to make the journey, yet light enough that you can portage it while carrying your backpack at the same time. It's a mix of the old and the new; a time-proven design constructed with modern materials. No digital readouts; no batteries required. The manufacturers didn't make my canoe more complex, they merely made it better. As an engineer and a product guy, I'm able to appreciate that.

Complexity for its own sake is absurd. I'd much rather produce an excellent product that solves a specific problem than a weak product that tries to address a confused jumble of issues and ends up being merely adequate. It's the Buck knife vs. the Swiss Army knife. A Swiss Army Knife replicates the functions of a can opener, a scissors, a screwdriver, a saw, a knife, a tweezers and a toothpick – but it doesn't do any of those jobs particularly well.

I try to apply the same principle to everything from processes to product documentation. My customers have better things to do with their time than deciphering cryptic user manuals or configuring unnecessarily complicated products. You could call it the Tire Gauge Principle: If complexity doesn't improve the product, don't make the product more complex.

What do you see? What are B&B's biggest sins of complexity? What still needs to be simplified? Where do you see unnecessary complexity in your own procedures?

Happy Connections,

Mike Fahrion