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Toothpaste, A Razor and a KISS (2013 Spring Commencement Ceremony Friday Evening)

  • Date: 05/10/2013
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: E.J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall
  • There is a story told in management circles about a toothpaste company that had a little problem.

    It purchased a multi-million dollar, high-speed packaging system for its production line. The system, however, developed a serious glitch: every now and then it randomly failed to drop a tube of toothpaste into a box. These empty boxes sped down the line,  were sealed and shipped to customers.

    To resolve this problem, the company hired consultants, conducted studies, and in the end, spent fifty thousand dollars on a precision scale. It instantaneously weighed each box as it whizzed by. When one was too light, a buzzer sounded, and the line stopped. A worker then would remove the defective box and reset the line.

    For a few weeks the scale detected about a dozen empty boxes a day. Then suddenly, it didn’t detect any. So the vice president of manufacturing decided to investigate for himself. He went down to the production line, and met a supervisor at the scale. They were discussing the mystery when a line worker who was standing nearby sheepishly stepped forward.

    “It’s my fault, sir,” he said. “I just got tired of that buzzer going off all the time, then having to restart the line.” He pointed to a place several yards upstream from the scale. “So I brought a little fan from home and set it up next to the line. It blows the empties right off. Look! There goes one now.”

    Earlier this year, a survey of more than 300 employers revealed that the qualities they most desired in college graduates were the abilities to think critically, communicate clearly and to solve complex problems.[i]

    The conclusions of that study did not come as a great surprise to me.  We regularly ask our alumni, our partners in business and industry, as well as professionals who sit on our advisory councils, some variation of this question: “What kinds of skills do you want us to instill in our graduates?”

    In fact, I am surprise not by what I read in the study, but what I did not see. For very often one additional answer we receive from prospective employers is: "Give us emotional resiliency."

    Executives are increasingly telling us that their employees need to welcome change...to be prepared to take risks and sometimes fail...to be prepared to adapt to the fast pace of technical innovation.

    But let us return to those three, core qualities mentioned in the study, because at the heart of each of them, is a common element: simplicity. In the story I told a moment ago, the vice president of manufacturing learned the hard way that complex problems rarely require complex answers. Indeed, their solutions often involve the reduction of complexity.

    In a few moments, we will confer honorary degrees upon two distinguished individuals, Speaker William Batchelder and Chief Judge Alice Moore Batchelder. Few of us will ever even encounter the type of complex problems that the Batchelders, in their respective fields, grapple with on a daily basis. Yet I am sure they will concur that quite often the solution to complexity lies in simplicity.

    To look at it another way, think of the smart phone that many of you have in your pockets. These are astonishingly complex devices, yet their controls are so intuitive that a pre-schooler can operate them.

    Much of the credit for the development of such marvelous devices goes, of course, to the Apple Corporation. The company has sold 350 million iPods, 193 million iPhones, 84 million iPads and 212 million Macintosh computers.[ii] Even though Apple’s stock has taken substantial hits in recent weeks, Forbes places its market capitalization in excess of $416 billion dollars.[iii]

    Competitors around the globe continually ask, why is Apple so successful. Last year Time magazine suggested the answer lies in six principles that Apple follows. Two of them were:  “products have to be easy to use” and “keep things simple.”[iv]

    If simplicity is at the heart of complex thinking, communication and problem solving, then empathy is at the heart of simplicity. The number one reason Time gave for Apple’s success is their adherence to the concept that “any product that Apple creates, the people who create it have to want it themselves.”[v]

    Alan Siegel and Irene Etzkorn take this idea further in their new book, “Simple: Conquering the Crisis of Complexity.”[vi]

    They cite the example of the Cleveland Clinic, which years ago determined that the best way to improve service was by first empathizing with their patients.  This approach has resulted in such practices as the 10-4 rule: whenever a caregiver – and every employee at the clinic is considered a caregiver – is within 10 feet of a patient, they are expected to smile and make eye contact.  When they are within four feet, they should address the patient.  Hospital gowns were redesigned to preserve some dignity as well as assure access. Even the bills, often one of the most painful experiences a patient may have, have been simplified to be more clear and concise.[vii]

    Empathy may actually lead you to some realizations that defy accepted practices.  Trader Joe’s, the specialty retail grocer, does the opposite of most grocery stores by limiting, rather than expanding, the number of products it offers.  Walk down most store aisles and you are confronted by a dozen competing brands.  At Trader Joe’s, there are often only three well-considered options.  Does this approach work?  Siegel and Etzkorn note that Trader Joe’s sales per square foot are more than double that of its chief competitors.[viii]

    To conclude this lesson, I would like to suggest two little memory tricks, or mnemonics, that may bring to mind the power and importance of simplicity.

    When a problem has you completely baffled, and you feel hopelessly intimidated by its complexity, I recommend that you visualize…a razor. Doing so may help you recall the famous maxim popularly known as “Ockham’s Razor.” It goes like this: “All things being equal, the simplest solution tends to be the best one.”[ix] The saying is attributed to William of Ockham, a 14th century cleric and philosopher.

    Why is it called a “razor?” No one is really certain why, but it is believed that the term was applied because when we trim away the excess with a certain exactness, one arrives at the simplest, best solution.

    The second mnemonic relates to communication. Recall that the survey of employers revealed that strong communication skills are highly valued in the job market.  So what should you do when an employer gives you the task of communicating something important?  After he or she leaves, I suggest you think of a kiss – and I will leave the specifics of that imagery up to you.

    I am sure all of you, at some point, have heard of the “KISS” principle, and some variation of the words that the acronym represents. For our purposes, let us use the one familiar to most editors: KISS stands for Keep It Short and Simple.[x]

    And with that . . . I will take my own advice!

    [i]It Takes More Than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success.” April 10, 2013. Hart Research Associates, Washington DC. Commissioned by the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

    [iv] Bajarin, Tim. “6 Reasons Apple Is So Successful.” May 7, 2012. Time. http://techland.time.com/2012/05/07/six-reasons-why-apple-is-successful/

    [v] Bajarin, Ibid.

    [vi] Siegel Gale and Irene Etzkorn. Siegel+Gale website. http://www.siegelgale.com/blog/simple-conquering-the-crisis-of-complexity/

    [vii] Siegel and Etzkorn, Ibid.

    [viii] Siegel and Etzkorn, Ibid.

  • Topic Category: Commencement Speech
  • Tags: Simplicity, critical thinking, complex problem solving, communication
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