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”.
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..
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.