In Pursuit of “Elegant Solutions”

A Friend of Juice pointed me at a recent dispatch from the Change This web site entitled Elegant Solutions. If you aren’t familiar with Change This, it is worth a look. It is an outlet for big thinkers to publish "manifestos" on (mostly) business ideas ranging from marketing and customer service to strategy and innovation.

This particular manifesto by Matthew E. May (a trimmed down version of his book by the same name) reveals the secrets behind innovation at Toyota. It offers a number of themes that resonate with the discussions on this blog. A few of the high points:

"Toyota is in pursuit of ’elegant solutions to real world problems.’ Not grand slam homeruns, but groundball singles implemented all across the company by associates that view their role not to be simply doing the work, but taking it to the next level... An elegant solution is one in which the optimal outcome is achieved with the minimal expenditure of effort and expense... [and is] is recognized by its juxtaposition of simplicity and power."

"Great innovation requires understanding and appreciating the concept of elegance as it relates to solving important problems. Oliver Wendell Holmes once said: ’I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.’ This is one of my favorite quotes—certainly my favorite by OWH.

Elegant solutions avoid the traps of: 1) Swinging for the fences; 2) Getting too clever—i.e. too many bells and whistles; 3) Solving problems frivolously.

"[Innovation] requires that we work the way artists or scientists do: accept the limitations, use them to our advantage, and pursue the simple question that drives the thinking behind every breakthrough, big or small: Is there a better way?" This idea of embracing constraints, which we wrote about a while back, is becoming increasingly embedded in business thinking.

"Artists and scientists own their work and sculpt their job. That’s new school. It’s a different mindset, and anything different is risky... New-schoolers know they’ll get pushback, but they trust their abilities, and continue to employ their ingenuity to explore and experiment with new ways of doing things within the confines of the organization." Chris and I are sons of an artist who quit his job to pursue his dream of painting. That lesson stuck.

"Real learning is a cycle of questioning, experimenting and reflecting. It’s how we convert curiosity into an innovative solution." This is a theme we constantly re-enforce with our clients—analytics is a journey of discovery. The end goal isn’t a report or analysis, it is a step that will reveal new understanding and help you ask a better question next time.

"Elegant solutions often come from customers—get out more and live in their world.... go look and see to fully grasp the situation; then, and only then, define the problem and design the appropriate solution." We have been a proponent of looking at the raw data that describes individual customer behaviors--alternatively, there are companies like Lextant that specialize in helping businesses get closer to understanding customer needs.

"Focus on clear and present needs, or your great ideas remain just that. Make sure you’re concentrating on a real need. Don’t confuse an unarticulated need with a non-existent one. Don’t attempt to manufacture a need." This is the fundamental problem with many data warehouse and business intelligence projects - in their attempt to be comprehensive, they minimize current needs and frequently miss the mark on future needs.

"Pictures and images connect people to thoughts and goals and help turn valuable ideas into action. So get graphic. Whenever you can, wherever you can, start building a visual element into your thinking... Digging into relevant data helps fight the dangers of bias, convention and instinct. There’s nothing better to help make the break with comfortable patterns than solid evidence. " Preaching to the choir.

"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’sdesires. Complexity destroys value, which is what matters most to the customer. The most elegant solutions always seem blazingly simple." Isn’t that just the way it is with many BI solutions?