There was a fascinating study published in the journal Nature that studied how people solve different types of problems. Gabrielle Adams and her colleagues at the University of Virginia found that people will often choose a more complicated solution by adding something when the best answer instead would be to remove something. One of the problems they presented was a house made of Legos that had a flat roof supported by one unstable column. Participants were instructed to modify the Lego house so it would support a single brick placed on the roof. There are two ways this problem could be solved. You could either add three columns to hold up the unstable roof or choose a simpler solution. That solution is to remove the single unstable column and lay the flat roof down on the sidewalls of the house. Most people choose to add three columns, while the simple answer would be removing the one unstable column and lowering the roof.

This tendency of people to add something instead of subtracting something may help explain why bureaucracy has a tendency to grow. The University of Virginia researchers also studied archived data at their university to observe the evolution of rules and regulations over time. When the university president asked students and faculty how to serve their community better, 89% chose to add a regulation – only 11% chose to remove a regulation, program or standard practice. People were more likely to choose the additive solution. That may explain why bureaucracy grows more complex.

After reading this article, I thought about two extremely successful products that used a subtractive approach. When Google was first released, it had a plain white screen and there was nothing to learn. The screen contained the name Google and a single search box. Previous search engines had complicated instructions about “and” and “or” functions. They were more difficult to use. Zoom video conferences software is another example of a subtractive approach. It became wildly popular because people did not have to learn how to use it. During the pandemic, I sometimes had to use horrible platforms where I had to have an hour-long training session. Streamyard is another program that is becoming popular. I figured out how to use it by myself with no training.

One might ask: “What does this study have to do with the meat industry?” One of the reasons why the North American Meat Institute animal welfare guidelines have become popular is that they are simple. When the guidelines were first started in the 1990s, they had five core criteria and six acts of abuse. Two additional core criteria were added that were really needed, which included access to water and absence of willful acts of abuse. The guidelines worked extremely well, but over the years there has been a tendency to make them more complicated by adding exceptions to the criteria. Traffic rules work because they are simple. Both drunk driving and speeding are measured with devices that provide objective numbers. Stop signs mean stop.

Some of the animal welfare audits that have been developed for farms are way too complicated. Too many things are being measured and the sampling procedures are too complex. To be effective, you have to keep the really important core criteria such as drunk driving and speeding for traffic and stunning efficacy, vocalization, electric prod use and falls for slaughter.

When I was working in the field designing equipment, I used to say, “Think simple.” On a piece of equipment, I would say to myself, “Can I use three air cylinders instead of six?” Sometimes less is more.