Notice This Next Time You Go Through Airport Security

If you travel by plane from a relatively busy airport (I consult and live in Atlanta, so for me this is often), I'll bet you've observed workers at the start of the security line where they check to make sure you have a boarding pass engaging in various tactics to move the line along faster. I've even seen an agent urge passengers who have already been through the ID checking stage to line up more tightly so that more passengers can move through that checkpoint.  

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Being a process consultant I've tried pointing out their folly a couple of times, but I've since given up. What these agents evidently cannot see, for reasons I don't understand, is that no matter how fast they move people past the boarding pass checking or ID checking stage, the line will never move any faster than the slowest part of the process, which is the X-ray process.

This is probably so obvious to you that I'm a little embarrassed writing a blog about it. But I'm using this example to illustrate a point that many people still miss. The hurry-up-to-wait syndrome I'm describing is an example of the bigger concept of local-optima thinking, or local optimization, that happens every day in almost every organization.

Eli Goldratt, author of The Goal and Theory of Constraints (TOC), spent his career helping people understand that every process, indeed every system, has a constraint which governs the speed and/or efficiency of the process or system as a whole. If that constraint is improved, another will take its place. There's always a constraint. Thus, if one wants to improve the performance of the system as a whole it's necessary to improve or "exploit" the constraint. Makes sense, right? Then why isn't everyone practicing TOC?

The reason is that in his battle for the manager's mind TOC consistently comes up against an even more powerful concept, the most powerful management concept of the last century -- BUREAUCRACY. And, when TOC faces off against bureaucracy, the latter typically wins.

You see, constraints are easy to see in security lines and even manufacturing processes, but elsewhere they're more hidden. Likewise, local-optima thinking can be hard to spot. But any time you're measuring or optimizing a part of the process instead of the end result of the process, you're engaged in local-optima thinking. 

So, where does bureaucracy fit into the story? You see, bureaucracy divides the organization into parts, specifically silos and levels, to form the familiar pyramid structure. A bureaucratic organizational structure is, by definition, a siloed hierarchy of parts. The managers of those parts are accountable for the performance of their parts, the result of which is local-optima thinking. In a bureaucracy this is normal and expected.

In a bureaucracy, local-optima thinking occurs all the way down the chain, even within a shared services organization. If your focus, and the measures of that focus, is on the performance of parts of end-to-end processes you are thinking in local-optima terms.

The alternative is to measure performance based on outcomes, but that's a topic for another blog. For now, the next time you go through the security line at the airport, see if you can notice people optimizing parts of the process that make no difference in the performance of the process as a whole. Then ask yourself the question:  Where in the part of the organization I manage am I doing the same thing?