Simplicity Begins With Ugly Pictures

By | October 25, 2011

Several years ago, Rob Carter, CIO of FedEx, looked out at the web of mind-numbingly complex systems around the company, and knew they were not sustainable. Some came from mergers and acquisitions, some were developed internally, and all were “necessary” to various business silos around the company. He knew it would be a tough job to demonstrate the seriousness of the problem, gain the support of business executives, and create urgency. In a “Mastermind” interview at last week’s Gartner Symposium ITxpo, Mr. Carter spoke about the transformation of IT at FedEx.

The difficult challenge he faced captured my attention, especially his comment that “I’m a big fan of ugly pictures”, to explain complex problems. From experience, I am a big proponent of mapping processes, (which generally results in a pretty ugly picture), as a basis for identifying and prioritizing opportunities for business improvement, as well as being a catalyst for generating creative solutions and high-level support for resources. Would the “ugly pictures” help Mr. Carter to show all the business executives at this very large organization the ramifications and future consequences of continuing down their silo’d paths?

The “ugly pictures” he created were maps of the spaghetti bowl of the entire FedEx IT infrastructure, including the total counts of all the applications, platforms, databases, HR systems, interfaces, tracking entities . . . you get the idea. He used the attention-getting ugly pictures and compelling stories behind them to get agreement and support from the top that a lot of time and money were necessary investments to avoid the time bomb lurking in the increasing system complexity.

FedEx proceeded to create a completely new IT strategy by “. . . decomposing the business into foundational services. Who is a customer? What is an address?” All the businesses had their ideas of an “address”, and had their own address databases, so instead of “knocking heads” trying to choose which of the existing systems is best, the company started over. They identified and solved for 22 core services, such as label services, address services, and location services, that really matter to the “simple” business of “picking them up and putting them down”, as Mr. Carter described their transportation business. Over time, interfaces fell away, some apps were no longer necessary, and a simpler, services-focused IT infrastructure resulted.

Have you or someone in your company created your own “ugly pictures” to help to re-focus, and simplify systems or processes? What did you focus on? What were the results?

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2 thoughts on “Simplicity Begins With Ugly Pictures

  1. Elizabeth

    They say a picture is worth a thousand words – sometimes an ugly picture can be worth a million!

  2. Scott Draeger

    I enjoyed this post. It was a nice reminder that tough problems need to be understood for their ugliness before you can begin to solve them. In the business of marketing to and connecting to customers, it is important to undersatnd the entire system. The, it can be simplified.

    A glorious post.

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