I was recently sitting in an airport waiting for a flight and for 30 minutes I stood mesmerized watching an amazing sculpture designed by George Rhodes known as a ball machine. This wasn’t the first time I’ve seen one of these ball machine sculptures. The first one of Rhodes designs I saw was in the late 1980’s while walking through a terminal at Boston Logan Airport. I remember almost missing my flight watching and listening to the sculpture. This Rhodes sculpture at another airport attracted young and old alike. The sculpture really doesn’t serve any practical purpose, but is an intriguing piece of kinetic art. It’s hard to pull yourself away from watching all that is going on – a sculpture that often uses a combination of drums, cymbals, gongs and depending on your point of view makes either a virtual cacophony or euphony of sounds.
“A Rube Goldberg machine is a contraption, invention, device or apparatus that is deliberately over-engineered or overdone to perform a very simple task in a very complicated fashion, usually including a chain reaction. The expression is named after American cartoonist and inventor Rube Goldberg (1883–1970).”
While watching the steel balls that roll endlessly though the intricate Rhodes sculpture I started thinking about examples of how some businesses work effortlessly and continuously in a similar endless fashion. Businesses that provide the same exacting levels of customer service and delivery of a product (or products) over and over again that are a key to success. Some businesses have developed very simple processes to find success while other companies tend to overcomplicate processes in an attempt to achieve success.
While at the sculpture I was holding a Starbucks coffee and that company certainly comes to mind as a business that invariably delivers both simple and very complicated orders efficiently and effectively. This Seattle based company that got its start almost 40 years ago has today become the largest coffeehouse with over 23,000 locations in 64+ countries. I just order a Venti black coffee when standing in line at Starbucks. I can never tell if the barista is happy or somehow saddened by my straightforward order. A Huffington Post blog titled “The Most Obnoxious Starbucks Drink Orders“ details some of the complicated orders at Starbucks such as a ‘Venti Iced Skinny Hazelnut Macchiato, Sugar-Free Syrup, Extra Shot, Light Ice, No Whip’. Now that order would be a challenge to any barista fulfilling Starbucks “delicious, handcrafted beverages” mantra. It makes me smile when I hear someone standing in line ordering a similar concoction. It really doesn’t matter where in the United States or the world you place your order; Starbucks seems to always deliver the same level of consistent service regardless of the local. The company has obviously spent a great deal of time and effort in perfecting the delivery of consistent levels of service, but it all seems pretty simple to the casual observer ordering coffee. Everyone knows that you’re going to have to wait a bit when ordering one of the “delicious, handcrafted beverages” mentioned earlier versus my Venti black coffee order, but those who order the complicated drinks don’t mind. They know they are going to be rewarded with a delicious drink made to order by a barista that has perfected his or her craft. In plain sight the platform seems pretty simple. Do you think that behind the curtain there resides a Rube Goldberg machine? Doubtful.
Can you think of other businesses which deliver products consistently in a simple straightforward manner? Maybe FedEx, Amazon.com or even MacDonald’s could come to mind. Fortune Magazine lists 50 of the “World’s Most Admired Companies” and the top 5 are:
- Berkshire Hathaway
I’m sure you’d agree that each of these companies is the polar opposite of a Rube Goldberg.
I’ve worked in a business or two that have taken great steps to simplify business processes through employee training and the use of technology in an effort to reduce back office costs that keep company investments focusing on people and growing the platform. And I’ve worked in a business or two that seems compelled to use a Rube Goldberg machine mentality. I think that those who insist on making simple processes overly complicated could find greater success by streamlining operating procedures, but as long as shareholders are pleased with the return on investment, changes in operating styles aren’t likely to happen. In a highly competitive industry companies that are overcomplicated ultimately could be disadvantaged versus others in the same industry that have found ways to reduce the Rube Goldberg machine mentality.
Do you know of businesses in your industry which operate more like a Rube Goldberg machine (deliberately over-engineered or overdone to perform a very simple task)? I’m sure that you do. Noted management doyen Peter Drucker is quoted as saying:
“Only three things happen naturally in organizations: friction, confusion and underperformance. Everything else requires leadership.”
It has to be frustrating for people who work for companies that use complicated procedures or policies in an industry where other companies have found a simpler way of delivering the same service. I’m sure you can come up with some examples in your industry.
So, what’s it like at the company you’re working? Does your company operate more like an Apple, Amazon.com, Google, Berkshire Hathaway and Starbucks; or does it operate more like a Rube Goldberg? Imagine the potential for those companies that operate using a Rube Goldberg machine mentality that pivot to find a better way to provide the services or products they offer. If you look at your company and think you see an area of the business that might resemble a Rube Goldberg machine, perhaps you should seek ways to make it a little less complicated. Isn’t that what leadership is all about?