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Columnist Jack West

Photo:  Jack West


Eliminating the Devil in the Details

Simplifying processes can improve system effectiveness.




In my September 2004 column, I discussed how a systems approach to management can help organizations deal with complexity. I stressed that “big picture” thinking and clear understanding of the interactions between quality management system processes are critical if an organization is to deal effectively with the effects of complexity, of which there are two kinds:

Detail complexity, which will increase as more elements accumulate. More parts in a product increase the complexity of the process that created it. This is often viewed as a negative because of the increased potential for failure.

Dynamic complexity, which will increase with the number of relationships or inter---- actions in a system or process.


An old saying observes that “the devil’s in the details.” This might be true, but it’s not just the details. For large systems or processes, dynamic complexity causes the biggest problems. There’s more to the two types of complexity than meets the eye.

Controlling complexity is so important for software developers that standardized ways have been developed to quantify it. An informative discussion of this subject can be found in Frank Houston’s “Measurement for Software Processes and Products,” in the ASQ ISO 9000:2000 Handbook (ASQ Quality Press, 2002).

Simple systems are always better when they meet both requirements and objectives. But therein lies the rub. Because a system must cover many processes, it generally ends up being complicated. Complexity also makes it more difficult to control a process to consistently produce output that meets requirements. Complexity not only increases the probability that processes will go wrong; it also complicates finding causes when problems arise.

Creating simple systems seems easy, but it’s deceptively difficult. It’s usually not hard to merely meet requirements, but it’s much more difficult to accomplish tasks in the simplest and most effective way. As an example, look at the typical action when processes go wrong. Often the corrective action involves adding a step to provide assurance that the problem won’t recur. If that extra step is effective, the problem might never happen again. Still, the additional step has added complexity and may well increase the chances of other failures.

What should be done about the complexity of quality management systems in your organization? First, decide how you’ll measure overall system effectiveness. Audit results can help, but there must be other measurements as well. Progress in meeting key quality objectives should be measured or monitored. Select indicators that reflect the system’s overall output, such as customer satisfaction scores or external quality failure costs.

There are several steps organizations might consider to encourage simplicity. Some of these include:

Make accomplishing requirements an integral part of the workflow. Avoid adding extra steps or processes to meet a requirement; instead, build in compliance.

Eliminate activities that have little or no value.

Organize the workplace so that needed objects are readily at hand when and where needed.

Reduce the number of process inter-actions.

Reduce the number of activities in each process.

Reduce the number of process steps.

Limit the number of internal requirements needed to meet specific ISO 9001 requirements.

Encourage an organizational culture that avoids adding activities or process steps to solve problems.


To be deployed effectively in an organization, these steps might require training those who create and those who implement processes. Some organizations have found that a key first step is to treat all activities that don’t add value as waste and eliminate activities that aren’t absolutely necessary. Waste elimination reduces cost and complexity, and it improves quality. Training in it can be a good investment.

The basic message is that less is more. For any given expectation of a hardware product, the fewer words written in procedures, parts included in the design, and people and machines involved in production, the better the chances of producing a quality product. A similar message is true of software: For a given function, the less code written and the fewer engineers involved, the better the chances of getting it right.

It could be time for you to become an advocate of simplicity in your organization.

Note: This article is based on portions of Unlocking the Power of Your QMS: Keys to Business Performance Improvement, by John E. (Jack) West and Charles A. Cianfrani (ASQ Quality Press, 2004).

About the author
John E. (Jack) West is a consultant, business advisor and author with more than 30 years of experience in a wide variety of industries. He is chair of the U.S. TAG to ISO TC 176 and lead delegate for the United States to the International Organization for Standardization committee responsible for the ISO 9000 series of quality management standards.