What budget airlines, a supermarket chain and a car manufacturer can teach you about your IT infrastructure.

Complexity is a scourge which affects the IT infrastructure of many organisations both large and small. Usually, a complex IT setup stems from being oversold IT solutions, implementing badly devised IT strategies or is simply the result of having no coherent IT strategy. Complexity in your IT can take many forms, but let me start with your network. Some organisations have a network which resembles a standard 3-bedroomed semi-detached house with 8 rooms extended onto it. Some of these rooms have been built on the roof. Others have been built out the back and the remaining rooms have been built in the front. Three different teams of architects and builders used. And, for good measure, for each extension different plumbers and electricians have been used. Invariably, the result is going to be a mish mash of different structural modifications, different plumbing and different wiring – a sprawling mess in other words. Unfortunately, the exact same phenomenon happens with IT networks. There is one “core” network and bolt-ons which have been added throughout the years. Data switches and wireless access points from different manufacturers. Then maybe a couple of VLANs and a firewall. All of setup in custom configurations from varying IT technicians who all have their own vagaries of doing things and all of whom left no documentation of their endeavours.

But complexity does not stop at the network layer. Take for example, operating systems. Some businesses will still have a Pandora’s box of operating systems running on-premise from Windows XP, Vista, Windows 8 and 10 to various flavours of OS X. In terms of office productivity software; some of these systems will be running Office 2011, Outlook 2013 or Outlook 2016 whilst the Mac systems might be running Office for Mac. Then, for critical processes like backup – multiple systems being backed up to multiple (un-labeled) backup devices using sometimes multiple types of backup software. As for security software, some IT setups will again suffer from the complexity problem with a potpourri of endpoint security solutions (anti-virus, encryption etc.,) being used from different vendors.

The problem with all of this complexity is un-smooth workflows, frustrated employees and time-consuming downtime. Poor interoperability between systems means they are more likely to break down. Having, for example, wireless access points all from the same manufacturer, in general, makes your wireless network more reliable. Employees using the same operating system version makes file-sharing problems less likely. Having IT security software all from the same vendor makes it easier to maintain and to spot security problems. Having standardised backup software means configuration errors and failed backups are less likely.

One only has to look at the success of the budget airlines to realise how removing complexity from a system makes things run smoother. While some legacy airlines use 12 different types of aircraft, the budget airlines use only one model. This makes aircraft easier to service, makes staff easier to train and means having to keeping less parts in inventory. Moreover, it means employing less technicians and results in greatly lowered operating costs. In the world of car production, Toyota has become a world-class leader in complexity elimination. For all their car ranges (Toyota and Lexus) they use just 13 platforms – foundational designs that can be easily customised. The sharing of parts and assemblies means that problems are spotted quickly and procurement costs lowered. Scania Trucks of Sweden, one of the most respected and profitable truck manufacturers in the world use half the number of unique parts compared to Mercedes trucks. All thanks to a culture of complexity reduction. In supermarket retailing, Aldi, the German retailler, stores on average only 700 different items in each store. Compare this to 15,000 items stored in competing supermarkets. This makes everything from logistics, inventory management to marketing leaner and more efficient.

Reducing complexity in your organisation is the gift that just keeps on giving. It means lowered IT costs, less downtime and happier staff.