Thursday, May 10, 2020

Kiss the KISS principle goodbye

We all know the KISS principle: Keep It Simple, Stupid. I’ve hated it for years and squirm every time I hear someone use it. Here’s why.
We’ve long been advised by many gurus to Keep It Simple, Stupid—usually abbreviated to KISS. I’ve often wondered precisely what this means. Does it just mean that that it’s foolish to embrace complexity, because people are so stupid you have to make everything simple . . . or they’ll be unable to grasp any of it? Or does it mean that keeping it simple is necessary because you are stupid, so any complexity is bound to be too much for you?

What about situations, ideas, or concepts that are naturally complex? Are you supposed to simplify them regardless of whether this makes them unintelligible or nonsensical? Or ignore them, just because they aren’t simple?

There are two principal kinds of simplicity. One is easily produced: take a quick, superficial view, based on some scrappy sound-bite, and ignore anything that might add complexity. Many examples can be found in most organizations, where complex ideas are reduced to some kind of slogan, like “Delight the customer,” “Be the lowest cost producer,” or “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”

The other kind of simplicity is tough, demanding, and may take years to achieve. That comes from long and careful thought, thorough research, and a profound understanding of all the elements involved. It has almost nothing in common with the superficial simplicity that is demanded by Hamburger Management. It seems simple only because you don’t see the huge amount of work that has gone into it, stripping away all the inessentials to get at the fundamental meaning beneath.

All too many corporate managers only understand the first kind of simplicity. They have learned how to use buzzwords without any real understanding of the processes they (very partially) describe. They look around and see the grass looks much greener over the fence in the other guy's organization, so they snatch up whatever they believe the other guy is doing and apply it instantly, usually understanding little or nothing more about it. Let me let you into a secret. The grass very often looks greener over there for one reason only: it’s had greater applications of BS than yours has.

Simplicity Type 1—the quick and dirty kind—fits the KISS principle exactly. Everything is kept simple (not gradually and painstakingly made clearer and simpler to grasp) by ignoring the complex bits and skimming over anything challenging to the mind.

Hamburger Managers like it because they assume, arrogantly, that others are indeed stupid, and couldn’t grasp anything more complex. Besides, they don’t want to “waste” time explaining or answering questions (or, still worse, having to defend what they are doing). In true command-and-control fashion, they shout out the slogans and expect everyone else to jump to attention, salute, and comply.

Of course, the KISS principle also applies because these macho types are stupid themselves. They haven’t the determination, patience, or (often) brain power to work through to Simplicity Type 2: the kind you only reach because you know the topic in such depth that you can step beyond superficial complexity and point straight to the essentials.

Forget slogans like KISS. Problematic complexity almost always has a single cause: you haven’t taken long enough, or thought hard enough, to grasp the topic fully, so explaining or teaching it gets muddled and wanders off the point. The only way to produce the crisp, elegant, utterly comprehensible “simplicities” of the greatest minds is the same way they they did it: hard work and steady application to learning.

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Simon Cast said...

I think KISS is a valid concept for both engineering and operations and well most design.

Unfortunately, as you noted many people confuse simplicity with simple and they are very different.

Simple is avoiding over complicating or over engineering a process or design or product. In fact good simple design should hide a problems complexity.

7:28 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for your comment, Simon.

I understand where you are coming from. There is no sense in making anything more complex than it needs to be. But no sense either in trying to make it simpler than it has to be, or ought to be, either.

With hard work, much thought, and great expertise, things can be made simple and elegant. Keeping them simple implies avoiding or ignoring the complexity that is naturally there. That is what I object to . . . and the impled blessing on being superficial and trite.

Keep reading, my friend.

7:44 AM  
Desertcat said...

I hear what you're saying. I still argue KISS is a valuable management and coping tool. We have all seen folks needlessly belabor or complicate something beyond all recognition.

All other things equal, the simpler approach is better than the more complex approach. Unfortunately, "all other things" are rarely equal.

9:57 AM  
Gray Miller said...

Carmine, I loved this post, because the foolish idea that simplicity should be applied for its own sake to every situation. Life is complex; ignoring that fact reduces the available resources and solutions in any given situation. I wrote about a particularly egregious situation brought to our district by consultants who wanted to reduce our message to a single word, simply because they didn't think our targe consumer could understand a more complex message.

I personally would not refer to that second concept as "simplicity" as much as something of "grace"; the ability to maneuver through complex tasks and situations with seeming ease through, as you say, patient and thorough practice and attention.

As always, thanks for the great post.

6:12 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks, Gray.

I'm glad that you enjoyed the article.

Keep reading, my friend.

9:32 PM  
Karin H. said...

Hi Carmine

Your post made me smile: the usual KISS as in Stupid is so negative. Like you say, that makes it sound foolish to ignore structures that are just not simple.

since my own blog is based on the Kiss principle and I believe in positivity I've translated the Kiss acronym in: Keep It Simple Sweetheart. Much more enticing to change especially red-tape in business.

Karin H. (Keep It simple Sweetheart, specially in business)

6:37 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for your comment, Karin H.

I certainly like "sweetheart" much better than "stupid," but I'm still wary of "keeping it simple" for all the reasons in my article.

Life just isn't simple. It's often very complicated. Trying to "keep it simple" too often means pretending that it is and just ignoring all the complexities. How can that help?

Keep reading, my friend.

7:33 AM  

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