Cumulative effects are very important.

The Soda AisleI shared the following article with my wife Robyn this week, and she shared many of the same frustrations as Scott just that very night at the local supermarket. Yogurt in multiple aisles, the loyalty cards, the self check out…

When I’m ready to pay, I see long lines at the human checkout stands and short lines at the self-checkout. I know from experience that using the self-checkout, which was designed by a crack team of practical jokers, sadists, and monkeys that have been abused by their trainers, will bring me to frustration. I know I will inadvertently move my bag before the system believes I should and it will proclaim to all nearby shoppers that I might be a shoplifter. I will feel humiliated, incompetent, stupid, and shamed.

I Want My Cheese

Every business decision needs to be made with respect to the decisions that precede it:

My point is that the new bag law in California is entirely reasonable when viewed in isolation. Likewise, loyalty cards, self-checkout, and all the other annoyances make complete sense when viewed in isolation. But we don’t live in a world in which anything can exist in isolation. Safeway and my city government have made the simple act of food shopping so complicated that I’d rather scrounge in the dumpster behind the store than endure the pain of shopping inside the store.

and what a waste of brain power!

Seriously though, I think society is blind to the hidden cost of complexity in daily life. The ever-worsening complexity isn’t simply annoying; it is hijacking your brain. Every minute you spend trying to find cheese, and trying to pay for it without getting arrested, is time you aren’t thinking about solutions to real problems.

If this seems like no big deal, you might be wrong. Consider that everything good about modern civilization was invented by people who really needed to focus to get the job done. What happens to a world-class engineer or entrepreneur when he or she has to syphon off more brain energy to satisfying Safeway’s marketing strategy instead of designing new products? Now multiply that times a hundred because every retailer, website, and business is trying to complicate your life too.

Applying problems like this to Civil Engineering and Urban Design is what gets my creative juices going, but recently I’ve been looking at the way municipalities (including internal departments) communicate with their customers, whether planning and engineering departments about the development process, or IT departments about the software issues that a staff member might be having. I call it obstructive complexity.

Complexity in the supermarket setting may add value to the company, (by increasing sales and reducing overhead), but it tends to treat the customer like a consumable, another product to be moved. In the office environment, any added complexity to a task or process, even if it has some intrinsic benefit to management or another department, should be avoided until it is proven that the organization will suffer without the process, software or equipment that adds complexity. And when such a decision is made, someone must review the cost of the cumulative effects of complexity, whether it is employee satisfaction, additional time taken, or inefficiencies in the process.

So, what works? Here’s an example that doesn’t apply in our current small town, Revelstoke, but did apply in Langley – Starbucks made my life easier when they combined the loyalty card, payment method and rewards for loyalty all into an iOS app on my iPhone. Instead of potentially three items to facilitate a purchase, I could use my phone.

Anyone else have examples of either obstructive complexity or organizations that have simplified processes to reduce complexity?

Published by Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas P.Eng. ENV SP, is the author of and Director of Engineering at the City of Revelstoke in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada.

4 replies on “The Cumulative Effects of Obstructive Complexity”

  1. My bug is trying to bag my own stuff while the cashier just looks on along with the lineup behind me because the cashier has not placed my purchases on the right belt for a start.
    Naturally most cashier are very quick because they are taught how to pack properly and they do it so regularly it becomes an instinct.  Having to hurry up one day ended up having  a crushed 12-egg carton in the mix.
    Now at my local No Frills (Save-on-foods etc) store I only buy enough to fill one shopping basket with the on-sale items and go to my regular store for the rest to be waited on.

    1. @JaniceK We found it much worse in Langley, at least in small towns you can have a relationship with the people who are serving you!

      1. That’s why I like living in Castlegar and have no ambition to live in the big city.  I try to build relationships in the grocery stores where I shop.
        e.g. addressing the cashiers by name; saying  good morning/afternoon to the people stacking the shelves.
        I should imagine it is a lot harder in the big cities, but if I lived there I think I would still try and connect with people.

  2. I think it’s just the worst that EVERY store has their own card. I’d prefer for them to partner with as many companies as possible for a rewards program where I can have one card that allows me to benefit from many stores, even if the rewards aren’t shared through other stores. That way I have one card to use. Also if I normally use a credit card for purchases, it’d be nice if I could register like some stores, a rewards program so if I pay with that card, rewards are automatically calculated. I am finding in more stores though, that even if you do not have your card, or a card in general, they’ll “spot” you a rewards benefit for cheaper costs!

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