When was the last time you were in a traffic jam? For some of you, it was today. For others, it’s an every day occurrence. For others, you can’t recall the last time. But many of us deal with traffic on a regular basis in some form or fashion. Maybe it’s during rush hour. Or in a construction zone. Or in poor road conditions. Regardless of the cause, sitting in traffic is a frustrating, trying experience. We’re in hurry. We have a 5-speed instead of an automatic transmission. We have a full bladder. We’re late.
Recently, I was sitting in traffic. We were nearly at a standstill. By the time it was over, I’d traveled about 5 miles in just over an hour. The positives? I had a full tank of gas, a cup of coffee, a good radio station tuned in and no appointments. The negatives? I was wasting time and I had some things I wanted to do. I had the day off from work and I didn’t want to spend it on highway going 0-5mph.
The worst part? When I got through the traffic jam, I realized that the entire bottleneck was caused by 3 lanes of traffic going down to 2. Really, that was it! How is that even possible? How can something as simple as merging from 3 to 2 lanes cause such congestion? Because people won’t (or can’t work together).
If you’re an operations research expert, statistician, lean sensei, or industrial engineer, you know all about queuing theory, bottlenecks, cycle times, and the theory of constraints. There are sophisticated tools, models, and algorithms that can be used to reduce wait time. But even the novice amongst us understands a bit of this science. If the lines get too long at the grocery store checkout area, the store manager opens another line, right? If you want to increase output of an operation, what do you do? You increase the output of the bottleneck. But in all instances, to reduce waiting, whether on the highway or in the supermarket, you need to increase and maintain flow. If you lose flow, you add non-productive time. Time spent waiting, doing nothing, adding no value.
When you come to a stop light, if the car in front of you delays, fewer cars make it through the light before it turns red again. Waiting. When you’re going through immigration at the airport, if the passenger in front of you is slow to move up to the next available agent, there’s a delay. Imagine the difference in life if there was continual flow on the highway or in a queue of any kind. There would be a lot less delay. A lot less waiting.
So what would it take to increase flow? There are multiple answers. Among them, you can increase the bottleneck as mentioned already. For example, on the highway, you could build extra lanes. In the supermarket, you could add extra checkout counters or increase the number that are open. Often, increasing the bottleneck requires money, either capital or expense. Adding lanes on the highway requires a significant capital investment. Adding cashiers requires additional payroll expense. But maintaining consistent flow doesn’t require any additional cost. It requires people working together. Cooperation. You can’t always increase the bottleneck. But you can always strive to keep the bottleneck fed by maintaining constant flow.
When I was stuck in traffic going 5 miles in an hour, the 2 lanes were sufficient to handle the number of cars and trucks if everyone had maintained the same speed and worked together. Okay, so there might have been a slight delay due to the initial merging, but if people worked together the delay would have been significantly reduced. If the tractor trailers had been able to accelerate and maintain a consistent speed along with the cars, the delay would have been reduced. If people were paying attention instead of texting they could have maintained an even flow. If drivers weren’t “rubber necking” at the construction workers operating the backhoe, flow wouldn’t have been interrupted. But as it turned out, everyone was doing their own thing. Some cars would wait until there was a small space and then accelerate quickly only to stop once again. Some cars didn’t want to let other cars merge, which created a disruption to the flow.
Imagine if members of an orchestra did their own thing. Chaos. On the flip side, imagine if a traffic cop or electronic sign or instrument panel in your car providing an indicator that said, “to maintain good flow, please speed up to 37 mph” or “to maintain optimal flow, please slow down to 24 mph.” Imagine if everyone followed those indicators. Flow would be improved. Delays would be reduced.
Working together is the key. You have to work together. If all the lanes on the highway are full and all the cars are driving 70 mph, except for one car that’s driving 55 mph, what’s going to happen? At worst, an accident. At best, a delay, a bottleneck, a traffic jam. What if the person driving 55 mph adjusted their speed? It would increase flow and benefit the overall population of drivers on the highway.
Not always, but often, people must work together to reduce delays and wait times. Working together increases flow which, in turn, increases or improves service and goal attainment. Leaders know how to work together. World-class leaders know how to get everyone to work together. They’re like a renowned orchestra conductor.
How about you? How well do you work with others? Do you block flow or enable it? Are you a conductor or a speed bump?
Dr. Robert Gerwig is an agent of change and is able to balance the needs of the business and the needs of people. Dr. Gerwig believes and practices the values of performance and delivery of business metrics while simultaneously developing and growing people into leaders. You can contact him at RobertGerwig[at]LeadStrategic.com.
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