Traffic planners can learn from organization designers and vice versa

During last week I traveled several times by bus from Oxford into Central London and back. It's a cheap, slow, way to go. One plus is the door to door – it's about 10 minute walk from my destination at each end. Going by train seems quicker although much more expensive but there's still the 20 minute walk to the station and when I get to Paddington there's the underground trip from the mainline station to where I need to be (Victoria). So there's a trade off between movement and progress. That's a phrase I heard in a meeting on Wednesday, 'Don't mistake movement for progress'. It feels like a good thing to bear in mind.

On the train ride it feels like constant movement but the door to door is about the same as the slow bus trip which makes painfully slow progress but gets there in the end, and on the bus I don't have to contend with no seats, standing in a crush, searching for my Oyster card, etc.

The bus ride takes 1.5 hours in late evening – after 9:00 p.m. and 2.75 hours in the morning, when I get on the 6:00 a.m. 'express'. I don't know how long the non-express takes. In my bid not to get impatient with incredible hold ups I think of it as a good time to get work done. Or I practice controlling my urge to leap off and get some quicker mode of transport (where/how?) by, in the words of the Zen Habits man, 'watching these urges, and finding them interesting. The best thing to do with urges is to be curious. I just watch my urges with curiosity. How did I get like this?' I haven't found that this helps much as yet but I haven't done 10,000 hours of practice, which is the much disputed but popular notion that it takes that length of time to get from beginner to expert in something.

What I found myself thinking (instead of observing with curiosity my urge to jump off the bus) was that traffic flows are much like work processes. Traffic hums along and then stops at identifiable points; traffic lights, broken down vehicles, and road works, for example. The stop points equate to things in a work process like waiting for someone to make a decision (and note we talk in organizations about getting the 'green light' on something) or to hanging around waiting for the 'computer system down' syndrome to be resolved.

Alternatively traffic hums along fast and then the speed slows to a frustrating jerky crawl with no obvious explanation. This phenomenon has been the subject of research in the world of traffic experts. For example: 'Scientists have been trying to bring order, or at least predictability, to motorway melees for decades. They assumed the familiar "stop-and-go" waves of congestion were due to the sheer volume of traffic. More recently, mathematical models have suggested they may actually be down to drivers' behaviour. With cars moving fluidly in a tight pack even a seemingly innocuous change of lanes may cause a tiny disruption which is propagated backwards for many miles.' This report goes on to note that the main culprit is timid and aggressive driver behaviour. The comments on this piece (34 of them) are worth a read too.

This stop and go progress due to timid/aggressive behaviour sounds all too familiar in an organizational setting. So we get the timid people who won't take the initiative 'It's not in my job description.' Or 'I'll have to ask my supervisor'. Or 'That's against the rules'. And on the other hand are the aggressive people who insist something happens now. Or pull rank. Or yell and scream till they get their way, and so on. Maybe we could promote or demote people on the number of points on their driving licence? Alternatively when we're thinking about capability in a work flow we could weed out the overly timid people and the aggressive people; but then we'd be contravening the diversity policy. Another possibility to keep work humming along is to take a leaf from the traffic planners/car manufacturers and develop and deploy some form of organizational adaptive cruise control – or is this there now but called performance management?

So what can we learn from the current state of traffic congestion research? I liked what I read about abandoning road construction (and thus road traffic) in favour of a drone network. This was for Africa. 'Why not build roads? Following the lead of road systems in the West is a nearly impossible task for the African continent. You're talking about a massive infrastructure investment and a huge ecological footprint. If you were to deliberately plan out an approach to transportation and logistics in Africa, would you do it in the same way? I'm convinced that the answer is no. Instead, I think you would use a few different modes of transportation; and one would be an aerial method like the drone network we're proposing.'

Good, now we have an innovative approach to work processes; we don't do them as logical flows or in the way we've always done it putting up with the timid and aggressive behaviour and the identifiable stop points. We instead have networks of drones; a notion that would be particularly attractive in some organizations as drones are apparently 'in the super low cost category'. But I must be careful here. We don't want people to think we think workers are drones and we don't want workers replaced by robots although we're fast heading down that route, and we can't pay under or even at the minimum wage to maintain the 'super low cost' because we've just found out that employers who pay above the minimum wage have a more engaged workforce whose members don't cause trouble.

So let's put the drone idea to one side and look at another traffic planner scheme. To reduce congestion, you cut out routes and roads. The idea is based on Braess' paradox which is very intriguing. 'One study identified six roads in Boston, 12 in Manhattan and seven in central London that could reduce average journey times if closed.' In another Braess Paradox based experiment scientists were looking at ways of stabilizing the power grid (power is delivered via networks which are not very stable). What they found was that an extra link in one or two positions destabilised the network, actually reducing its capacity, just as a new road or bridge can increase congestion. What can organization designers get from this rather well known finding that you can 'restore network function by cutting out parts of the network. Just as closing a road can sometimes improve the flow of traffic.' We learn we can just cut out bits of the existing network. Hmm this may be already well known in organizations as 'downsizing' or is it 'Lean'?

In more reading I find that apparently Braess Paradox has been negated because the paradox disappears in times of high traffic. But in another lovely paradox the conclusion from this research is that 'the negation of the paradox actually adds to the paradox's original conclusions: when designing transportation networks (and other kinds of networks), extreme caution should be used in adding new routes, since at worst the new routes will slow travelers down, and at best, the new routes won't even be used.' Oh we introduce something new and then people won't use it. Does this sound like 'resistance to change'?

But not so fast on the Braess Paradox. We might be better off going for recognizing the fact that in any network the 'paths between nodes can have different capacities, like a wide highway versus a small country road.' So we can develop 'a max flow algorithm' which has to consider both the volume of flow and the route it can take'. The article says that the algorithm 'identifies clusters and bottlenecks first, allowing the algorithm to focus on difficult areas and speed up the solution.' But it doesn't say whether it takes into account the timid/aggressive people or just the work? Regardless, I like the sound of an organizational 'max flow algorithm' perhaps it's going to be the latest tool for organizational design consultants?
In summary, during my commutes this week, I've found out:

  • That closing roads can reduce congestion.
  • That timid and aggressive drivers increase congestion.
  • That introducing new routes doesn't mean people will use them.
  • That networks of drones are a cheap alternative to getting things done and there is no congestion involved
  • Deploying adaptive cruise control could help keep traffic flows humming along
  • That the Braess Paradox and 'max flow algorithms' are terms ripe for adoption by organizational designers.

So it could be that organizational designers can learn from traffic planners and vice versa – what insights could you swap with traffic planners? Let me know.