Organizational excellence – Importance of avoiding traffic jams

March 7, 2011 at 9:36 am | Posted in Blogroll, Organizational Excellence, Systems Thinking | Leave a comment

We all have faced traffic jams and cursed when being caught in them. Occasionally they may form because of an accident, a demonstration (chakka-jaam) or VVIP movement. But quite often they take place without any apparent reason. Mathematicians have studied this phenomenon and call it phantom traffic jam. They found that traffic flows start slowing once the utilization level reaches 50 percent and significantly after 80 % utilization. The mathematical equations that describe traffic jams are very similar to those used to describe detonation waves produced after an explosion. Once a jam starts to form, it happens very quickly. Once it is formed, it’s almost impossible to break up.

What’s the significance of these findings to what happens in the organizations? Just as the vehicles moving on the roads are involved in traffic jams, work movements through different individuals and departments are part of work jams. The reasons and solutions are similar in both situations.

Because it is very tough to break an already formed jam, only solution is to slow / stop the incoming traffic till the jam gets a chance to resolve itself. In organizations also if something is not moving satisfactorily we push it harder and throw more resources at it. But the solution lies on giving a chance to the work jam to free itself.

When we know that jams don’t wait to start forming till it reaches a level of full capacity utilization but much earlier, it makes sense not to push too much work in the system, watch for early signs of jams starting to form and withhold putting further work in the pipeline.

When a traffic jam starts to form, everybody is in a hurry to get ahead of others resulting in every available nook & corner getting tightly packed so that nobody can move. Each person wants to fulfill his objective regardless of the effect it is having on the whole system and in turn adversely affecting everybody including him. Same is true in organizations because it is human nature but it gets aggravated when there is strong monitoring, motivation and encouragement for local optimization at the cost of the larger system interests. Solution lies in the problem itself. It helps to measure, motivate & incentivize for local contribution to larger goals.

When I had reached this point yesterday, I noticed a telecast of 1992 hit movie “Roja” on TV. Madhu (Roja) was in a verbal fight with Naseer (Colonel Rayappa) to get her husband Arvind Swamy (Rishi Kumar) released who had been taken hostage by the extremists. The colonel was telling her to look at the larger issues but she was adamant that all she cares for is to get her husband released. This forces the colonel to think out of the box and come up with a creative solution which helps fulfill both her objective as well as the larger ones. Here I was, having written just a few minutes back that “each person wants to fulfill his objective regardless of the effect it is having on the whole system and in turn adversely affecting everybody including him”. Was there a contradiction? For a possible answer I looked my last week’s blog post about importance of diversity. There was a type of diversity called “Diverse preferences” which is not considered good since it leads to “heated exchanges and sometimes even deadlocks”. Now here was a case where preferences which were strongly diverse had led to a better outcome. I am thinking that the key is how the participants handle it. If they allow their ego to control and blind their thinking, the result would be harmful. On the other hand, if they are open to others’ viewpoint while still being passionate about what they believe in and taking in new experiences with an open mind then there is an opportunity for breakthrough solutions. There is another interesting aspect. Probably Roja’s adamancy & persistence helped to weaken the compartmentalized thinking in the government agencies.

Lastly, as the sudden narrowing, sharp turns and rough patches on the road creates uneven traffic flow and accelerates creation of jams; similarly hierarchical boundaries and desire to protect own turf, suspicion about and rivalry with other functions and power politics all contribute to creating and sustaining work jams resulting in great damage to the organization.

Awareness of the mechanism of work jams, the contributing factors and possible solutions would greatly help us in keeping the work flowing smoothly and without hindrance. This is true for manufacturing industries where materials are flowing; it is even more serious in knowledge industry where not only the transactions but even ideas need to flow smoothly and speedily.

I would really appreciate any thoughts / experiences from you that either support or challenge what is said above.


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