Process and procedure complexity

People are at the heart of any organization. They set the organization’s goals, they manage it, they deal with suppliers and customers and they work together to produce results.

We manage this by processes. Process are on a continuum by how complicated and complex they are. Simpler jobs can be reliably done by following procedure. More complex ones require the ability to analyze a situation – using established rules – and decide which of several alternative paths to follow. In even more complex cases they analyze, diagnose, design, redesign, program, plan or schedule. In some cases, they create new products, processes and new ways of being. Very complex jobs require individuals who can analyze and solve very complex problems.

These complex, knowledge driven processes get difficult to provide as work-as-prescribed. The work involves thought and creativity, and finding the right balance is a continual balancing act of knowledge management.

Complex and Complicated – Time to Break it Down

Complex and Complicated

I went and did it. I now have a song on complex and complicated. A rap anthem to a subject I hold so dear. I bought this through Fiverr from Burtonm6, who was a joy to work with.

Lyrics below

Complicated and complex

these words are not synonyms/

people often misunderstand

i can break down for you

lets begin

problems that are complicated

gotta check how they  originated/

from causes that can be addressed

piece by piece

individually distinguished/


hope that you get the idea

cause and effect is linear

when we’re dealing with complicated

there’s more so listen here

learn the difference

ah yea we got to

I’m here to help yes i got you


every input always has a proportionate output

now its time we move on to complex

lets learn what its about and how its so different

it deals with many causes that cant be distinguished

as individual

because it all intersects

and we must address as an entire system

and if you try to solve it then its not a one and done

it might require to be systematically managed

a multi-functional structure

hard to fully understand it

richly inter-related

they changes in unexpected ways

as they all interact

now lets us talk about the constraints

when its complicated

then its one structure

one function

due to their environment

being delimited

no fronting

complex systems are open

yes thats for sure

cuz its difficult to know where they end

or where they will go

systems in place

to separate is impossible

it was difficult to see the differences

but now you know


complex and complicated

they are not the same

time to break it down so that you can understand

helps  decision making

when you’re analytical

whether complicated or complex

now you know


Quality-as-Imagined versus Quality-as-Done

Assumptions about how work is carried out is often very different from the reality of the work. This is the difference between work-as-imagined and work-as-done. Assumptions about work as imagined often turn out to be wrong because they are based on a fundamental misunderstanding. Steven Shorrock on Humanistic Systems has been doing a great series on proxies for work-as-done that I recommend you read for more details.

The complexity of our organizations implies a certain level of inevitable unexpected variability and thus a gap between Work-as-Imagined and Work-as-Done. Work-as-Imagined reflects how work is understood by those who are separated from it by time or space; it is an over-simplified version of what is actually going on. Work-as-Done takes account of what it means to function effectively, despite resource-constrained circumstances. The analysis of the gap between Work-As-Imagined and Work-as-Done usually indicates that performance variability is present in both desired and undesired outcomes and, therefore, successful outcomes do not necessarily occur because people are behaving according to Work-as-Imagined.

The same concept applies to the nature and implications of the gap between the prescribed quality practices and policies, Quality-as-Imagined, and the way they are deployed in practice, Quality-as-Done.

This gap should be no surprise. Our organizations are complex systems, and complexity can give rise to unintended consequences.

The interesting thing is that quality can drive a reduction of that gap, solving for complexity.

The Influence of Complexity on Quality
Dynamic InteractionsWide DiversityUnexpected VariabilityResilience
SocialInteractions between employeesEmployees with varying skill levels
Employee turnover
Diversity of functions performed by employees
(e.g. multiskilling)
Errors when operating equipment and tools
Unexpected behaviors
Variability in human labor demand
Unexpected outcomes from
social interactions (e.g. conflicts and alliances)
Employees’ ability to
anticipate risks
Critical analysis of data
Informal agreements between workers to distribute the workload
TechnicalInteractions between production resources
Interactions due to tightly coupled operations (e.g. time constraints, low inventories, capacity constraints)
Product diversity
Diversity of quality requirements
Diversity of client requirements
Technical disruptions
Resource availability (e.g. maintenance staff)
Variability in production times (e.g. cycle time, lead time)
Dimensional variability (e.g. potential for defects)
Inspection readiness
Corrective, preventive and predictive measures
Work OrganizationInteractions between information sources
Interactions between functions
Interactions between processes
Interactions between performance indicators
Diversity in managerial controls
Diversity in relationships with external agents
Diversity of rules and procedures
Variability in the hiring of new workers
Changing priorities (e.g. frequent rescheduling due to unexpected conditions)
Variability in timing and
accuracy of information
Negotiation, partnership and bargaining power with suppliers and clients
Investments on new resources
Multidisciplinary problem-solving meetings
External EnvironmentInteractions between the organization, suppliers, and clients
Interactions with regulatory bodies
Diversity in suppliers
Diversity in clients
Variability in Demand/Need
Variability in logistics
Capacity and slack management
Examples of Complexity Impact

Quality Book Shelf – It’s Not Complicated

It’s Not Complicated: The Art and Science of Complexity in Business by Rick Nason

Nason states at the beginning of the book: “Engineers, scientists, and ecologists have been thinking in terms of complexity for fifty years, and it is time that the business community considered some of the valuable and interesting lessons the field has to offer.”

This book is a great introduction to the concept of complexity, and I think it should be required reading.

Complexity generally occurs whenever and wherever there are human interactions.” 

“It is thinking, creativity, and risk taking that lead to sustainable competitive advantage.” 

Over-reliance on data can be dangerous, and Nason goes into detail on how US Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara disastrously managed the Vietnam War with spreadsheets: “You cannot collect data on things that are unknown … even if the factors are known, the precision needed for the data to be useful for a complex problem would not be achievable.”

None of us are as smart as all of us, and nature trumps us all. Nason refers to Orgel’s Second Rule that, “evolution is smarter than you are and that events in the business [human] world turn out to be more creative and clever than the best minds can imagine.” In addition, serendipity plays a critical role: “Complicated systems allow us the illusion that luck or serendipity played at best a limited role in our success and thus, that whatever success we have is almost exclusively the result of our own skills and effort.”

I could basically cut-and-paste quotes all day.

As someone who feels we overuse complicated and complex as synonyms, I recommend this book to all as a way to get familiar with the core concepts. I sort of wish he would write the companion volume, “No, that’s not complex.”

Complex Problems, a rant

Inevitably you will sit in on a meeting and hear someone say “We need to find the root cause of this complex problem.”

If you are me, you possibly think one of two things:

  1. Complex problems don’t have root causes. In fact, they don’t even have clear cause-effect paths
  2. That’s not complex. It’s complicated.

Occasionally, I think both.

In my post “The difference between complex and complicated” I went into detail on the differences between the two.

Does it matter? Mostly not, but sometimes very much so. The approach you bring to the two can be very different, and if you think you are tackling the wrong type of problem you could spend some time banging against a wall.

For an example:

  • Wanting to reduce cycle time for release of product is a complicated problem. You can reduce the problems and solve for them (e.g. tackle deviation cycle time, specific areas of deviations, processing in the lab, capacity in the value stream, etc)
  • Ensuring a robust and resilient supply chain is a complex problem. This problem is multifunctional and the system is open.

It is for this reason I continue to use Art Smalley’s Four Types of Problems. This gives a nice setup of language for talking about problems in the organization.

We definitely need a School-House-Rock style song for this, or good rap.