The problem with knowing how Bottlenecks work

Reading “The Goal” changed how my brain works when faced with a problem. To be honest, it took probably 4 or 5 readings but it did tilt my perception forever.

This week I had to nip into town, remembered it was a Tuesday and that the local Farmers market was on and that there would be heavy traffic as a result. Is our farmers market that popular that it would draw that much extra traffic? Nope.

So it must butt into the road and slow down traffic that way? Nope. All the stalls are well back from the road.

So WTF is the connection to the connection between the Tuesday market and the heavy traffic?

The market does straddle the main road through the town which goes straight through the town’s square. This means we get the occasional pedestrian crossing between traffic and rubber necking from nosey drivers.

It’s kind of shocking how much of an impact small changes can have on a system that is, under normal conditions, close to 100% capacity anyway. It’s worth spending a few mins watching this TedX video on traffic and the introduction of congestion charges in Copenhagen.

If you don’t have the time to watch it, let me summarise:

  • The introduction of a congestion charge led to a drop of 20% in the amount of traffic entering the centre of Copenhagen.
  • This had a dramatic effect on journey times.
Travel time in Copenhagen plotted against volumes of traffic following the introduction of a congestion charge,
Travel time in Copenhagen plotted against volumes of traffic.

As you can see from the chart, a drop of 20% in traffic led to a ~70% drop in travel time. (Roughly 50 mins to 15 mins).


The introduction of a congestion charge => 20% drop in traffic => Average Journey Time dropping from 50 minutes to 15 minutes!

So here I usually talk about Work, and Teams and what not… What has this got to do with it?

Have a look at how steep that curve is near point A. Every small reduction along the X-axis leads to massive life-improving change along the Y-axis. This is the promise of continuous improvement for me. There usually isn’t a congestion-charge equivalent in our work, but there may be 20 individual 1% changes that can transform a workplace from a place of chaos where we achieve very little to a place of peace where every day is productive.