Seth Godin on slack in systems

If you ask most people who run a factory, or an organisation or a sports team, what they’re looking for is a taut, firm connection between and among everybody: everybody busy all the time. The reason that a bucket brigade is so much more efficient than people running back and forth and back and forth to the source of water is that it’s easier for people to efficiently pass the bucket from one to another than it is for them to run back and forth. You will put the fire out faster.

If you’ve ever seen an efficient juggling troupe or bucket brigade or a hockey line-up that’s passing, passing as it works its way down to the goal, it’s a thing of beauty. And so what we seek to achieve is that idea of synchronisation. But I’m here to tell you that you cannot maximise system efficiency by eliminating slack from the system. It feels like you should, but you can’t. And the reason you can’t is because of variability. Variability says that someone might be five minutes late for their appointment. Variability says there might be a custom order coming through that’s worth it for the organisation to take on. Variability says that some customers need to be treated differently from others. And when a system like that exists, when you have removed all of the slack, then when switching costs kick in, the whole system falls apart.

What’s the alternative? The alternative is a fire department with firemen who eat chili for three hours, waiting for the alarm to ring. If you were trying to get rid of slack what you’d do is say, “Let’s have exactly the right number of firemen so that when the average number of fires are happening, all of the fires are being addressed.” Which works great – except when the above number of fires show up. And when the above average number of fires show up, you don’t have enough firemen to go around.

And so what we have the opportunity to do as we organise our lives, as we dance with these systems, is to intentionally build slack into our systems. A buffer. A cushion. To avoid the emergency. Because in that buffer, we can work on the long term stuff. The firemen aren’t really eating chili… they’re using their downtime in a slightly productive way. But mostly what they’re doing is standing in reserve, waiting for when the emergency shows up so that they don’t have to say, “Oh, sorry your house burnt down.”

Seth Godin – Akimbo Season 4 Episode 20: Systems Thinking

Where do you want to go?

And do you trust that the people you’re following can get you there?

Have they been there before?

Has anyone been there before?

For interesting work, there probably isn’t a map of the route, so you’ll looking for:

  • People who have been to similar places
  • People who have been part of the way
  • A cohort of fellow travellers
  • Compasses, not maps

Typo (1)

I was reading an article – a thoughtful, well researched, nicely structured, neatly expressed piece of writing about something important – when I came across the typo.

“Ha!” ran my interior monologue. “This person is an idiot. I am smarter than they are.”

Of course, it’s better if a text is error-free. But typos and spelling mistakes are probably the least important problems a piece of writing can have and are by far the easiest things to fix.

Perhaps that’s why we’re trained to pay them so much attention: it’s a lot easier to teach kids to spell than to help them learn to think, to have something worth saying, and to say it convincingly or winsomely.

Inwardly ridiculing the idiot who misspelled a word or two is a cheap trick we use to feel good about ourselves – with the added benefit that it allows us to hide from the fact that the writer in question (smarter or not) has taken the time to write something, and we haven’t.

A little bit extra

A few percent over or under makes a big difference in the long run.

  • A little bit less on your plate each meal – three times a day
  • The biscuit you don’t eat – twice a day, every day
  • The run you don’t skip even though you’re taking your kids to the park later and will get some exercise then anyway
  • The little bit of unassigned time that helps you catch up on emails and makes you feel in control of your inbox, rather than at its mercy
  • The tiny moment it takes to say hello to people properly and read the mood when you enter a room
  • The one-line email saying thanks that makes an exchange feel complete
  • The tip you gladly give when you’re not sure you should because it’s a better mistake to make
  • Allowing five minutes to put on your shoes

What are your little bit extras – to add and to avoid?

Finishing lines (4) – two numbers

Here’s Seth Godin with some of the best advice I’ve heard for drawing (finishing) lines. It’s especially relevant for businesses.

Q: I’m wondering about personal financing your company and where you draw the line if you’re funding it yourself?

Rule number one is you never put up your house. Don’t laugh. This means you can’t sign a personal guarantee on anything. “You want to rent this? Ok I’ll rent this, but I’m not signing a personal guarantee on anything.”

I have not signed a personal guarantee. I was bankrupt for eight years. I was this close from having to close down for eight years and I still never signed a personal guarantee for anything. That is a line I have chosen to never cross and I encourage everyone to do. The minute you do, suddenly there’s a 3-year-old at home who’s going to have to live on the street if you make a mistake. I just don’t know how to take risks when that’s at stake.

Then the advice that I give people is, if we’re going to be intentional about this, you need to write down a number and a period of time.

The number, it can be as big a number as you want, is the maximum amount of money under any circumstances no matter what that you’re willing to put in. And when you hit that number you can’t put in another penny.

People hate this. They say, “But what if something blah, blah, blah.” NO. There just has to be a number.

The second one is, “How much time before you give up?” And again, it can be 20 years. Fine. But you can’t say, “19 years and 11 months into it, but wait there’s one more deal that might come through.”

You just have those two numbers because if those two numbers are in place and your spouse is aligned with it, you never have to worry about it again. It’s off the table.

This whole situational thing, “I just need $2,000 more,” that’s lying to yourself. The discipline early on is so valuable because then you can spend 100% of your time focusing.

So you raise more money than you think you need and you treat it like it’s the last money you’re ever going to have. It’s way better than always wondering where that next nickel is going to come from.

Seth Godin – Start Up School Ep 11: Cash Flow
From a transcript by Kevin Evans

Finishing lines (3)

In the probably-quite-unlikely event that your project will last longer than you do – or at least lasts longer than your desire or ability to keep it alive – you’ll need to have a personal finishing line in mind.

  • When, ideally, will you let go of the project?
  • What state do you hope to leave it (what needs to happen so that you can leave without killing it?)
  • Under what circumstances will you leave before the ideal time?
  • What do you need to do and how do you need to frame your departure so that you and others feel good about you leaving?
  • Will it be a clean break, or are there ways you’d continue to support the project?
  • If things go wrong after you leave, what circumstances (if any) would drag you back?