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Complex or complicated?

We consider many products to be complex, but they are not. They're "just" complicated. Processes can be both complex and complicated. This difference has far-reaching consequences for controlling such processes.

Posted on: 02/03/2019

The terms complex and complicated initially sound like synonyms, because both mean the opposite of simple. Complexity and complicacy, however, are different things. A complicated system is generally predictable and follows a set of consistent internal rules. Complex systems behave in a multi-layered manner and cannot be described exclusively with if-then rules of a single consistent rule set. They may show different behaviors under identical conditions because they usually follow several, partly independent, rule sets.

Products that we use every day always behave the same. At least that is what we expect, that is why we bought them. Products cannot be complex, at most they may be complicated. They seem complicated to us because we do not fully know or understand the rules of their internal operation.

Product manufacturers also expect the manufacturing process to consistently produce the same product with the same quality. Anything else is considered an error. So, even a manufacturing process can only be complicated, not complex. Products with several variants have a clearly defined manufacturing process for each variant. This makes the whole process more complicated, but not complex.

Things only get complex when the process or the product has to be adapted - for whatever reason. Rulesets can increase efficiency enormously if they are reliable and stable. Adjustment to the product or process means changes in the rules. Such changes inevitably affect the entire value-added process. The more efficient the current process works, the greater the impact. Therefore, the change must be carried out carefully and methodically.

The development of new products and the enhancement of existing products consists of activities with countless changes. The adjustments of the product and the resulting production process is only one of these activities. The real complexity arises when change becomes normal. This has become a reality, even in the manufacturing industry.

In summary:

  • Product and production process are complicated but not complex

  • The development process is also complicated. It can also become complex if it is subject to continuous changes.

Complicated processes can be managed with hierarchical organizational structures and decision-making methods. Such structures and methods are not suitable for complex processes.