Monday, April 4, 2011

Power of Simple Images

By Al Norval

Complexity is over-rated!

It’s easy to be complicated but it’s difficult to be simple. Elegance is simple, yet it is not easily achieved.

One of Lean’s most powerful principles is to make things visual. People often do this yet fail to think about what message they are trying to convey. The result is overly complex visuals which fail to meet their purpose. Confusion reigns. Instead, what we really want is to be able to understand the current condition at a glance. Then we can tell if we on target or off target so we can launch problem solving.

The same holds true in our communications. We’ve often heard that a picture is worth a thousand words but what if that picture is so complicated we can’t understand it. A thousand words may not be enough to explain it. In today’s age of powerful graphics available on every laptop, we often see fancy slides that look like a Las Vegas light show. We call this Powerpoint Junk. The image is so complex the message is lost.

Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the leader of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, was shown a PowerPoint slide in Kabul last summer that was meant to portray the complexity of American military strategy. “When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war,” General McChrystal dryly remarked, as the room erupted in laughter.

The Mental Model of simple visual images for all important things can dispel the fog of Big Company Disease and allow us to focus on the real problems.



  1. Al hits the nail right on the humans we tend to gravitate towards complexity, there is great satisfaction from being able to understand (or pretend to understand) a message from the abyss of chaos. Visuals must be simple, easy to understand at a glance so that we can comprehend current condition in an instant and know whether any decision or actions need to be made or taken. Value to an organization comes from people taking the right actions quickly, not doing detective work to figure out what the message was in the first place.

  2. As Andre said, complexity is easy - it's difficult to be simple. This is such a powerful concept, it's the subject of one of our Mental Model Brain Booster cards.
    Understanding what is going on at a glance allows us to move into problem solving much faster. Isn't that why we have the visuals in the first place?