Life in the Fast Lane


According to St Etienne, life is ‘like a motorway’. I’m not too sure about that, but I do know that a motorway is definitely like a system… (*ignores groans from readership*)

During my travels on some of the nation’s motorways earlier today, I encountered a couple of my pet hates. The first is people who drive in the rain with their fog lights on, dazzling other drivers. As I later ranted on Twitter, “They’re called ‘fog lights’, not ‘rain lights’. The clue’s in the name. Thanks”.

fog lights

No great moral to that story, but there is an interesting lesson resulting from the journey’s other main irritant. As you know, most motorways in the UK comprise three lanes. In police parlance, the nearside lane is called ‘Lane 1’; the middle lane, ‘Lane 2’; and the overtaking lane, ‘Lane 3’. (Note – Lane 3 is not the ‘fast lane’. Okay kids?)

Anyway, the idea of this design is that Lanes 1 and 2 are supposed to carry the bulk of traffic, with Lane 3 coming into play for passing slower vehicles. When travelling along a motorway, if the lane to your left is empty, drivers should use it and not sit in the centre or outside lanes. To ignore this important rule of the road is selfish and disrupts the flow of traffic. Have a look at the diagram below to see what happens..

motorway drawing

Now, I accept that I'm never going to win a prize for artwork (although any police officer who has ever drawn a diagram on an accident report will recognise those crude shapes that represent vehicles), but there is a point to these scribblings. If drivers leave left hand lanes empty and unnecessarily occupy the outermost lanes, it causes an adverse effect on the overall system – vehicles gravitate towards Lanes 2 and 3 and suddenly the capacity of the motorway is effectively restricted by one third.

Consequently, the volume of traffic that could otherwise be easily managed by utilising three lanes cannot be handled by the limited available roadway, meaning the whole motorway slows right down, or even grinds to a halt. (I experienced this today on a section of the M25 where there are five, yes FIVE, lanes, yet not a single vehicle was using Lanes 1 or 2).

So, how am I going to crowbar this tale of woe into a lesson about systems? Well, first of all it teaches us about flow – i.e. stuff moves optimally along any process when capacity is matched to predictable demand. If, by interfering with the process, or as a result of bottlenecks, additional unnecessary stages or restrictions, then flow becomes impaired and the process is less able to achieve its purpose. Pretty obvious really.

Furthermore, if an otherwise effective system becomes constrained (e.g. its operating model is comprised of fragmented departments or subject to burdensome restrictions), performance will always be adversely affected and capacity wasted.

On a slightly more complex level, when one considers some of the underlying psychology behind the drivers’ behaviour, we see another example of the rational, utilitarian conduct similar to people grabbing tables in my post ‘Would You Like Sub-Optimization With That?’ This is where individuals place their own needs above those of the group – in this case, tending to gravitate towards Lane 3 in an attempt to get past everyone else, even though Lane 1 is relatively empty and the motorway would have been eminently capable of handling the volume of traffic if everyone ‘cooperated’.

The situation is analogous to the dysfunctional behaviour caused by fragmented operating models and exacerbated by the perverse incentives associated with performance targets. Individuals and departments within a system will tend to prioritise their own interests over those of the group if they are pitted against each other by management. What happens is that people will do their best to ensure that they meet their own targets, even if this is at the expense of others. When this type of behaviour ensues it always comes at a cost to the overall system. Individual parts ‘win’, whilst others lose – the overall cost is that the whole system loses, along with the customer or service user.

This behaviour does not occur because these are ‘bad’ people, but because system design and management norms inadvertently encourage it. The same thing happens where functional silos handle different parts of a piece of work – as long as workers achieve their departmental targets it’s often the case that defective product or intractable problems are allowed to proceed along the process and become someone else’s headache.

In policing, one example could be the dysfunctional behaviour that results from managers comparing the performance of teams (or even individuals) against each other. No one wants to be at the bottom of a ‘league table’, so everyone crowds into Lane 3. The whole motorway slows down.

The solution lies in departments and individuals working together towards a common purpose, using all three lanes to make maximum use of capacity. The presence of dysfunctional performance management systems, perverse incentives and numerical targets are a cast-iron guarantee that performance will be otherwise impaired.

By removing these pathogens, managers open up all three lanes of the motorway.

About InspGuilfoyle

I am a serving Police Inspector and systems thinker. I am passionate about doing the right thing in policing. I dislike numerical targets and unnecessary bureaucracy.
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13 Responses to Life in the Fast Lane

  1. ThinkPurpose says:

    I think game theory tells us about situations like this. The prisoners dilemma shows whilst it is in every bodies interest to co-operate, ie use the lanes correctly, it is in one individuals interest to “cheat”, ie drive in the outside lanes. But only if she is the only cheater, when everybody cheats, everybody loses.

  2. Absolutely. And when additional incentives are thrown into the mix, it gets even worse (as I’m sure you know). Happy 2013 and keep fighting the good fight…

  3. stymaster says:

    Great post. Both major annoyances for me, and I also totally see your analagy for non-motorway use.

    I have heard several people say they stay in L2 “because it’s safer”. I really think it’s ignorance, lazyness, or lack of confidence. Some also cite not wanting to follow the “tramlines” generated by trucks. I believe a lot of poor lane discipline is caused by ignorance, either of surroundings or the HC, rather than a wilful choice. I’d like to see it rigourously policed though 🙂

    Just out of interest, what would your view be of someone undertaking in L1 in your diagram, provided they didn’t weave in and out? My understanding is that this is not illegal, but could lead to a charge of driving without due care and attention if an officer judges it dangerous. The HC mentiones that overtaking on the inside is permissible in queuing traffic, which you could argue is represented by your picture.

  4. Jon says:

    In relation to motorways the Highway Code states “Undertaking is permitted in congested conditions when frequent lane changing is not recommended”. The analogy above would fit this. However mangers often attempt to cheat systems to keep things flowing and most of the time it doesn’t work. I believe honesty is the key. If you do not have the workforce to achieve X then do not promise everyone that X will be achieved. Look at what can realistically be achieved and strive to achieve that. The problem is that honesty and realism don’t get you promotion or wage increases, it usually gets you labelled as laid back, lazy, uninterested or even militant.

  5. David McAra says:

    I saw something interesting in 2-lane sections of the A1 a few years ago. After the 3 mile warnings of off side lane closure, while there was slow moving or stationary traffic in the near side lane, many drivers would pass the queue and expect to be let back in to the near side by the more patient drivers, causing them to stop and so reduce the capacity of the road.

    It seemed to me that some truck drivers were taking a position in the offside lane and moving at the speed of the near side to the benefit of all because the near side lane didn’t have to keep stopping.

    • stymaster says:

      That’s an interesting one- especially if you think of the road as a system. Maximum throughput would, I’d say, be achieved by using both lanes up to the obstruction, and then zip-merging at that point. However, this rarely works in practice, because at the merge, no-one seems to be able to grasp the concept. In this case, the truck drivers actions help.

  6. patently says:

    Ah, you discovered the sections of the M25 that were widened in order to provide additional empty lanes to the left of the existing traffic flows…?

  7. Blue Eyes says:

    Of course the motorway problem could easily be solved by a change in lane-discipline rules and/or a relaxation of the speed limit. German motorways do not suffer from this problem.

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