KISS stands for “keep it super simple.” There are other definitions of the acronym but they all mean essentially the same thing. Lots of things in life are complex but there is great value in presenting them in a manner that can be easily understood by everyone.
The ability to present complex things simply is a skill that a lot of Master Black Belts (MBBs) have not yet mastered. In fact, many pride themselves in sharing all of the miniscule details of Lean Six Sigma (LSS) craft making the simple appear complex. An effective change agent, however, should apply the KISS principle whenever possible.
Masters of Content
Keeping things simple does not mean dumbing down the content being delivered. “Masters” of content can take a complex topic and distill its essence so that everyone can appreciate the subtleties without being overwhelmed by the minutiae. The goal should be to ensure that everyone in the room, regardless of background or education, can fully comprehend the problem, its solution and its impact.
In the “good old days” of LSS, there was a reason to make statistical analysis seem more complex. When someone had to hammer out a multiple regression by hand, making it known to be complicated was a defense mechanism. Today, with modern stats software and personal computers it is no longer so onerous or difficult.
Success in continuous improvement comes from creating a culture of inquiry and trust. The more understood and accepted the process, the better the stronger that partnership becomes. A society of specialists hinders continuous improvement and promotes silo thinking. A society of learners will master anything it needs to the level needed when it is needed, as opposed to people who go to the keepers of the tools when they have a problem. Learners know that it does not matter whether someone is counting pennies or doing quantum physics, by applying KISS everyone can – and will – help.
Control Variation in Learning with KISS
But what does KISS mean in practice? Most processes aren’t simple! Businesses are complex; customer relationships and supply chains are complex; regulations are complex. A business may have started a LSS program because it has already tried simpler approaches and not achieved the desired results. All these and more may be true, but it is also true that if change is desired, that change must be understood and accepted by all. In other words, take the complex and make it seem simple for everyone.
Complexity pours into most processes, business relationships and systems. Well-intentioned fixes add degrees of freedom to processes, flexibility can grind supply chain decisions to a halt, and the automation of underdeveloped processes automates mistakes and delays. Everyone in LSS should know that degrees of freedom and defect opportunities are the sources of variation, and variation is the number one thing that should be controlled.
What people forget, however, is that teaching and mentoring is a process, and degrees of freedom and defect opportunities are present in this process – resulting in variation. This variation is what should be controlled with the KISS principle. As with any other process improvement system, the drivers of that variation must be understood in order for KISS to be effective.
It is almost a universal truth that process complexity, similar to entropy, increases over time. Every time a difficulty or new condition is encountered, countermeasures are also added to avoid the pain that failure causes. Quality systems manage that complexity by increasing the knowledge embedded in the work (e.g., by adding standards, process controls or procedures). The whole process works great so long as knowledge is added and that knowledge is added in forms and formats that can be used by those who own the system. The better a process is understood, regardless of its complexity, the better a process can be managed. In terms of KISS, it is not simplification, but rather creating an environment where process learning occurs.
Five Steps to KISS
There are five KISS steps.
1. Know the audience. It is the obligation of the speaker to be understood, not the responsibility of the audience to understand the speaker. When a message is delivered, it should be spoken in the language of the audience with examples from their experiences. If it is hard for leaders to explain something they know well in terms that relate to their audience’s education, culture and common experience, imagine how hard it is for the audience to understand what leaders are telling them to understand and assimilate – something completely new without the benefit of those communication norms. Remember, the goal is to eliminate degrees of freedom in comprehension not degrees of freedom in the delivery.
2. Know the topic well. What often passes for knowledgeable arrogance and dogmatic inflexibility is incompetence and insecurity. Before someone throws a curve, be sure to fully understand the topic and know any limits of that expertise. It is desired that people ask difficult questions. Do not fall into the trap of suppressing this inquisitiveness when it does not fit into a plan.
3. Do not lecture, teach. No one washes their rental cars and few people openly criticize the lecturer at the podium. They have no ownership beyond the transaction. Each party is more interested in their side of the relationship than the intersection. Drivers do not care whether the car is returned dirty (unless there is a fee) and the rental agent will not reward a driver for doing anything above and beyond the contract. The same is true of teaching.
When teachers are more concerned with the delivery of their content than they are about the comprehension by their students, no learning happens. Feedback may be requested, but this is often interpreted as feedback on how to deliver the message – not confirmation that the message was heard and understood.
Some LSS practitioners become Black Belts and are expected to not just understand the process but also apply and adapt it as needed to create results. Black Belts are to be mentored and coached so that rather than dogmatically following the steps of a process, they create a path from problem to solution clear enough for others to follow.
4. Check for comprehension. Not everyone learns in the same way, but everyone must learn for system knowledge to increase. In order to ensure the message was received and interpreted properly, the fidelity of that comprehension must be measured. Otherwise, leaders are simply broadcasting to the wind and hoping someone hears what is said. Hope is a poor strategy.
5. Adjust delivery until it works. Sometimes the message is not properly understood or may be incompletely understood. When this happens, leaders must recognize that it is not the people at fault, but the process. Change the process and reassess. It is not easy or comfortable to adapt to someone else’s learning style, but for knowledge transfer to occur it is critical.
All of continuous improvement hinges on individuals’ ability to communicate and that rests on an ability to make the complex seem simple to a team. It is not about making the process simple (although that helps), it is about making learning about the process simple. With KISS, teams learn the tools they need to manage complexity and focus on what is truly important.