14 Ways to Simplify Your Business

By Lisa Bodell

Simplify business processes

Years ago, Southwest Airlines placed a bet on simplicity.

While other airlines flew a variety of aircraft models, Southwest chose to build its fleet around a single model of plane, the Boeing 737. If one plane couldn’t make it to a destination on time because of a storm or maintenance issue, another plane could take its place, keeping the airline on time and saving it money.

Simplification made the airline easier to run, more flexible, and better able to meet the needs of customers—and Southwest isn’t the only transportation company to harness the power of simplicity.

In 2013, General Motors consolidated and simplified its brand lineup, dropping its Pontiac, Saturn, and Hummer divisions. The elimination brought real benefits, helping the company save as many as 1.2 million jobs.

While GM and Southwest are examples of operational and brand simplicity, any simplification tactic that makes a company nimbler, more efficient, and faster gives it a competitive edge. The company that can quickly adapt to new conditions wins—and it’s easier to adapt when teams aren’t hindered by unproductive (and often unnecessary) meetings, e-mails, tests, approvals, and reports.

Through my innovation work at futurethink (and research for my new simplification book), I’ve identified proven ways to jump start simplicity.

Of the following 14 tactics, which ones address the biggest time-sucks or employee pain points in your organization?

1.  Eliminate 1 current activity before adding a new one. This golden rule of simplification emphasizes respect of employees’ time and thoughtful examination of existing responsibilities.

2.  Empower direct reports with decision-making. Charge each person on your team to make 2 decisions this week without you. At your next status meeting, discuss which decisions they made on their own. Expand this behavior to 3, 5, and 10+ decisions per week, and tie decision-making to individual performance or to a simplification metric for your department.

3.  Reward employees for identifying redundancies and red tape. While positive reinforcement isn’t a new concept, it’s been proven to spread the value of simplification across organizations. Publicly reward employees who make a successful case for killing a project, task, or policy.

4.  Conduct annual meeting audits. After several divisions at Sprint reviewed every meeting it held in one year—from standing and weekly status meetings to events, off-sites, and team gatherings—the company eliminated 30% of them. Direct team leaders to conduct their own meeting audit and cancel every meeting that doesn’t add value or has outlived its original objective.

5.  Equip managers with outcome-focused solutions. Train managers to resolve gripe sessions by asking “What do you hope to achieve through this dialog?” This tactic redirects a conversation from “My colleague always gets first choice when choosing holidays” to “I want to pin down my summer vacation, and I need you to review my request this week so I can plan my trip.” When managers guide employees to phrase their complaints as wishes, an issue like “I hate the new hire process” becomes “I wish the new hire process included only 1 level of approval and could be done in 3 days or less.”

6.  Redesign your travel policy for convenience. Travel policies are a pain point for many of today’s employees. Pharmaceutical company Novartis provided its business-traveling employees with more flexibility on hotel price and location by adding 40 hotel chains to its travel policy.

7.  Establish unlimited vacation. The delivery service Deliv reduced the number of HR and senior staff hours spent managing vacation days by eliminating the policy altogether. If time off affects a particular employee’s performance or work quality, empower managers to adjust policy for that individual.

8.  Identify irrelevant reports. Is your department contributing to valuable reports or have some of them outlived their usefulness? Is duplicate information already compiled by another division? Analyze all the reports to which your team contributes for opportunities to streamline or eliminate.

9.  Kill stupid rules. When HBO conducted this exercise for the first time, more than 100 stupid rules were identified and eliminated to free up time and reduce bottlenecking. Through a Google Doc, the group continued suggesting more stupid rules to kill and other parts of the organization adopted the practice. Rule-killing spread organically throughout the company and is now a best practice.

10.  Define employee roles by outcomes, not tasks. Task-based job descriptions focus on processes, not results, so redefine roles in your organization for outcome-focused measures of success. For example, “write 3-5 press releases per month” could become “generate 20+ press mentions per month.” This approach shifts the focus from “how” to “what.” It flexes employees’ creative problem-solving muscles and empowers them to concentrate on what actually matters.

11.  Start meetings with goals…and end with action items. Require that every meeting agenda include the meeting’s goal and is sent to invitees in advance. Similarly, require that next steps be defined at the meeting’s conclusion.

12.  Institute email-free time zones. UK-based multimedia production company Ten Alps banned morning emails so employees could allocate time for ideating and imagining instead of inboxing.

13.  Utilize NNTR. For email topics that are FYI and don’t require a response, type NNTR (No Need To Respond) in the subject line. By utilizing this tactic, a business unit at Merck reduced email volume within its group by 20%.

14.  Eliminate traditional performance reviews. Professional services company Accenture did away with performance reviews in 2015. Instead of relegating feedback to a once-a-year exercise, managers now provide employees with feedback on assignments as needed throughout the year. By providing reviews in real-time—instead of trying to recall mistakes or successes from 10 months ago—these check-ins enable managers to identify and resolve performance issues in a timely manner. And by removing the anxiety and formality associated with annual reviews, the feedback itself can become less threatening and more supportive to employees.

Making simplicity part of how employees operate every day is key for your company’s success—both financially and culturally. A recent Siegel+Gale study revealed that employees in simplified work environments are 30% more likely to stay at their jobs. Why? Because their time is spent on high-value work instead of endless meetings, reports, and emails. From lower employee turnover and better morale to less busywork and red tape, simplification offers opportunities to achieve a competitive advantage in every corner of your business.

Looking for more tips on how to free up time to be more innovative at work? Download our free eBook on Time Management:

Time Management eBook

Lisa Bodell is the founder and CEO of futurethink, which uses simple techniques to help organizations around the world embrace change and increase innovation capabilities. She brings her compelling message to more than 100,000 people a year, showing them how to eliminate mundane and unnecessary tasks from their everyday routines. Through futurethink’s tools, Bodell has transformed teams within Google, Novartis, and Accenture. Through her new book, Why Simple Wins, her message of simplification is reaching readers at companies of all sizes around the globe.

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