Lean—Theory of Constraints and Leadership

Cars in a parking lot

I’m glad you’re here. Reading. Thank you for not being thrown off by the title. I promise I’ll do my best to keep it from being a treatise on industrial engineering, queuing theory, flow, lean, theory of constraints, or operations research. Of course each of those is a fascinating topic, but this is not the forum for quantitative science, engineering, or process improvement techniques.

If you’re a regular reader of my weekly article, you know that I typically tell a silly, light-hearted story and then, miraculously, draw a leadership lesson out. The same will be true this week. And while I’m at it, thank you again for reading. It’s encouraging to hear how these stories (those that are fact and those that are fiction) resonate with you, reminding you of something you already knew or motivating you to try something new. In the end, it’s encouraging to know that some of you are positively impacted by these leadership musings and use them to build upon your foundation of leadership. Alright. Let’s get to it.

The cars pictured above head out every morning and return every evening. They belong to commuters like me. While I typically leave between 5-6am, the drivers of these cars usually head out between 6:45-7:30am. Yet one thing is for certain, hundreds of cars from my temporary housing unit and surrounding condos, townhomes, apartments, homes, and estates are on the roads each morning and evening. In total, there are hundreds of thousands of cars on Chicagoland interstates, freeways, toll roads, and surface streets each day.

If you drive a lot, like I do, you’ve probably noticed how much you can tell about a person by the way they drive. Fast. Slow. Reckless. Driving slowly in the passing lane. Not using their turn signals. Drivers putting on make-up, eating lunch, drinking coffee, or dancing to music. Some will not pass on a two-lane road. Others don’t know how to yield. And on it goes.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about drivers and industrial engineering, queuing theory, flow, lean, theory of constraints, or operations research. Oh and collaboration. You see, if the drivers of cars worked together, then traffic would flow. You wouldn’t have large gaps. You wouldn’t have to speed up only to slow down again.

That guy who blows by you but has to slow down shortly after passing because he can’t go faster than the bottleneck. That lady who won’t adjust her cruise control to blend in with the flow of traffic. That kid who won’t speed up 2 mph to get out of the way of faster moving traffic. That senior who isn’t driving the speed limit making the tractor trailer move over into the fast lane on an uphill climb slowly down scores of cars. Yes, those folks. If you’re a commuter and have good situational awareness, you know what I mean.

I once heard about a city in Canada that monitored traffic conditions real-time and used electronic speed limits to post optimal driving speeds. Their signs would say something like, “For optimal travel time, please drive 37 mph.” Of course you could drive faster than 37 mph but you weren’t getting through the city any faster. Or you could drive slower than 37 mph and prevent others from minimizing their driving time. Or you could always collaborate with your fellow drivers and drive as close to 37 mph as possible so that you could all minimize your drive time and enjoy optimal speeds for the current traffic and road conditions.

The worst? Those drivers who see a lane closure ahead but insist on running up at 90 mph and then sharply cutting in. Not only is that not “right”, but it slows down traffic and impedes flow. Think if they had blended in prior to the bottleneck. To maximize throughput (in this case, traffic flow), you always want to “feed” the bottleneck. But usually the bottleneck is right at the spot where one lane abruptly ends and that’s precisely where there’s a holdup. The bottleneck is being “starved” because drivers aren’t cooperating. To be blunt, they’re being selfish. They’re adding to the delay of many cars so they can get ahead a few seconds.

Once, while living in the Carolinas, I had a commute of about 45 minutes. My primary office was in a small town and much of my drive was on a two-lane road. The speed limit was 55 mph. I typically drove 60-64 mph which was typical for this road. But there was one guy who worked at the same place I did who always passed me (and every other car) going about 85 mph. Yet as we came into town, there was a long stoplight followed by a 6 mile stretch that was about 45 mph. And cars were generally bumper to bumper. Each morning, this guy would pass me and I wouldn’t see him again for 25 minutes until we pulled into the office parking lot. About 20 seconds apart. I nicknamed that stoplight and the 45 mph section “the great equalizer” because cars arrived at various times, but they all exited about the same time. It was a classic case of flow, theory of constraints, queuing theory, lean, and operations research. All the things I learned as an industrial engineering student.

So what? As leaders, we should be aware of removing obstacles for our teams. We should look for ways to increase the bottleneck. We should demonstrate and reinforce the behaviors of cooperation and collaboration. We should help others understand the concept of waste, the “loss to society” of variation, the importance and economic value of flow and the idea that sometimes you have to go slow to go fast. It’s like giving someone fish versus teaching them to fish. In the short-term, it may be more expedient to give the fish. But in the long-term, it’s a suboptimal and unsustainable approach. On a 4-lane interstate, 1,000 cars all going 68 mph will arrive at their final destination sooner than if those cars vary in speed from 53 mph to 96 mph.

Hope you have a great week. Look for ways to improve flow, increase throughput going through the bottle-neck, remove obstacles, minimize variation and collaborate. The cars pictured above will be on the road tomorrow, will their drivers cooperate with one another? Will you?

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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