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

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