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
A few days ago I watched a schoolboy kicking a can down the road. He kicked it a couple of times and then miskicked, sending the can flying into the road, where it landed at the feet of an off-duty city cleaning worker, still in his orange uniform. These guys are fantastic: they put in the hard yards of sweeping the streets, cleaning out ratty drains and fetid canals doing a whole load of other stuff to keep Jakarta clean. This guy – in his uniform – trapped the can with his foot, bent down, picked it up, and looked at the kids with a grin that said “Don’t worry guys, I’ve got this.” Then he leaned back and tossed the can stylishly over his shoulder and straight into the… flowerbed.
This is a man who spends several hours a day sweating to keep Jakarta clean. He works in the dirt and grime, puts up with rats, cockroaches, heat and traffic fumes to clean the city up and to keep it clean. He’s part of the Orange Army transforming Jakarta – but he throws a piece of rubbish that lands at his feet into the flowerbed instead of the bin. Why?
Because that’s his culture. It’s what he saw his parents do, it what his neighbours do, and despite the best efforts of the school curriculum to teach another way, it’s probably what his kids do.
Job descriptions alone won’t solve this problem: you can hire all the street-sweepers you want, but you’ll never have clean streets until a large majority of people put their rubbish in the bin rather than throwing it on the ground. In other words, until keeping the city clean becomes the culture: “people like us, do things like this.”
Changing the culture is harder work than giving some people the job of cleaning up everyone else’s mess. Harder and slower, but in the long run more effective, cheaper and more sustainable. Changing the complex system of culture takes conversations, campaigns, and curriculum changes. It takes leadership: politicians, celebrities and parents who care enough to do what they say. And it does need street sweepers – people can’t see that the streets are dirty until they’ve seen clean ones.
Job descriptions are necessary, but they’re never sufficient.
*See also: Singapore, tree planting and the new normal
I was going to call this ‘the exponential function’, but I didn’t want to put you off.
This is a key force behind much of Anything Yet: if things grow steadily (say, at the rate of few percent per year) and continue to grow at that rate, it doesn’t take long for that growth to become enormous – we might say overwhelming, and we should also say all-consuming.
The classic line about this is from Dr Albert Bartlett, Manhattan Project alumni and all-round interesting guy:
The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.
I’m not sure I’d go as far as that, but he makes an important point. Here are a couple of great introductions to the idea.
The second is Albert Bartlett himself with a more involved but really helpful explanation: