Simplicity and Innovation

We use the term breakthrough simplicity to describe an approach to innovation that is rooted in finding new ways to make everything simpler. It’s a way of thinking that, once adopted, enables you to envision and pursue a wide range of possibilities that can lead to major breakthroughs.

This puts a fresh spin on “innovation”—that much-used, oft-misunderstood buzzword. There’s a tendency to think of innovation as coming up with the latest gadget, or adding new features onto existing ones. But the concept of breakthrough simplicity recognizes that today, the most powerful forms of innovation don’t manifest themselves in new bells and whistles. They take the form of better customer experiences (or patient experiences, or citizen experiences). And one of the best ways to improve any experience is to simplify it—to remove complications, unnecessary layers, hassles or distractions, while focusing in on the essence of what people want and need in that particular situation.

Case study: Southwest

Breaking new ground via simplicity isn’t so simple, of course. Part of what makes it hard is that within almost any industry or product category, complexity builds over time—and gradually comes to be accepted as an unavoidable part of doing business in that sector. It takes a maverick to come along and say, “Maybe things really don’t have to be so complicated.” This was the case with Southwest Airlines. Four decades ago, Southwest was looking for an opening in the airline business, which was crowded, chaotic, and complex, even back then. At the time Southwest was first taking wing, it was assumed that running an airline meant dealing with all manner of cost inefficiencies and inherent complexities—from maintaining a large and diverse fleet of planes to the logistics of serving dinner to each passenger. It seemed there was just no way around these everyday hassles of running an airline—until Southwest proved otherwise.

Instead of having its fleet stocked with various types of planes, Southwest opted for a one-plane-fits-all approach by flying only Boeing 737s. And while other airlines had grown used to a multi-stop hub-and-spoke system to get passengers to their destinations, Southwest made the bold decision to focus on direct nonstop flights. On those flights, they would serve snacks, rather than full meals. This streamlining of the business-model created tremendous efficiencies for Southwest, saving money on plane maintenance, food, and cleaning costs, while also ensuring that its planes spent more time aloft and less aground. As noted, the airline “keeps things simple and consistent, which drives costs down” and “maximizes productive assets.”

Of course, all that streamlining could have diminished the customer experience, but Southwest turned it into a positive by focusing on simple, basic benefits that mattered a lot to its customers. It used the cost savings to offer lower fares; it nixed the annoying hidden fees and surcharges that other airlines levy on customers; it doesn’t charge for baggage; it has fewer flight delays than other airlines, in part because it used the point-to-point flying system.

And while it cut back on food,Southwest amped up the in-flight experience by encouraging pilots and attendants to banter and joke with passengers—which they have become known for doing with gusto. The overall business results are well-documented: Southwest has been one of the few consistently profitable airlines over the past three decades.

But the larger point proved by Southwest is that no industry or category of business, regardless of how inherently complex it may be, is beyond simplification. In fact, the more complex an industry is, and the more complicated a particular product or service within that industry may be, the more opportunities there are for simplification—and the more it will tend to be valued and appreciated by customers.

Excerpted from the book Simple: Conquering the Crisis of Complexity. Copyright (c) 2013 by Irene Etzkorn and Alan Siegel. Reprinted by permission of Twelve/Hachette Book Group, New York, NY. All rights reserved.

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