top of page

KISS – keep it simple stupid

As government leaders around the world are attempting to ease their lockdowns, things are getting messy. Boris Johnson has admitted the new "Stay Alert" coronavirus message is "more complicated", after his plan to ease lockdown was criticised for being confusing. Those of us in business know something about things being “complicated”. The trick is to make things simple.

Let’s back off the coronavirus for a minute and think about designing and building an aircraft. This isn't an easy process. Aircraft are complicated machines. It is interesting, therefore, that KISS, a really important framework, arose from that place. KISS is an acronym for "keep it simple stupid", or "keep it short and simple", whichever you prefer. It was devised by Kelly Johnson who was the lead engineer at Lockheed Skunk Works. Johnson was a renowned aircraft engineer who knew how to get things done. Among his many rules and principles he believed in selecting the best possible people, reporting directly to the boss of the company, and insisting that no one interfered with his work.

Kelly wasn't alone in recognising the importance of simplicity. Leonardo da Vinci is credited with saying "simplicity is the ultimate sophistication". It is a common error for people to believe that if something is important it is likely to be complicated. Making things look simple and easy denigrates difficult problems. I'm not saying that every problem can be dismissed with a Pollyanna solution. I am saying that even a sophisticated product like an aircraft can be built around KISS principles. Kelly Johnson knew that the jet aircraft they were designing had to be repairable by an average mechanic in the field who may have limited tools. In no way was he suggesting that the mechanics were stupid, rather it was that the design should bear in mind the need for easy repairs should they be necessary.

We can see how complications can lead to errors by looking at some of the spreadsheets we have to review in our businesses. It isn't surprising to know that many spreadsheets used in analysis have errors that do not get spotted. The more the number of cells in the spreadsheet which include formula, the more likely there will be an error. The chance of making a mistake in any single cell is quite small - judged to be just 1% to 5%. However, these errors multiply as the number of cells in the spreadsheet increase. If the spreadsheet has 100 cells in the calculation, you can be certain that 1 in 10 of the outcomes will be completely wrong. A study was carried out of 15,770 spreadsheets used by Enron and it found that nearly a quarter contain formulas that were flawed.

So, keeping it simple is something we should all strive to do. There is an irony in simplicity. Unfortunately it is easier to design something that is complex than something that is simple. In 2016 Ken Segall published a book called "Think Simple: How Smart Leaders Defeat Complexity". This book is an important read. It helps us see how Apple was able to use simple design to create new product categories and distance itself from the competition. It tells us how Jerry Greenfield grew Ben & Jerry's from a local manufacturer of ice cream to one that was global without losing its focus or simple values. It shows how complicated problems can be chunked down so that each part of the process is simplified.

So, Mr Johnson and every other world leader wanting to ease the Covid-19 lockdown, we know social distancing is important but remember this, give it a KISS.

bottom of page