Size does matter

My bike and I left London a bit early yesterday afternoon to miss the rush hour. Once we’d negotiated the Hammersmith bridge the traffic was flowing steadily with no major problems and the roads were at less than half of their capacity. We headed off towards Richmond. Shortly before Richmond, while waiting for the lights to change, I heard the gentle blip of a siren behind me.

I moved out of the way and two unmarked police cars raced past me and through the red light and turned their sirens on. I thought nothing further of the incident and continued making my way home.

About a mile down the road I joined a queue for another set of lights and started slowly working my way through it. (in case you’re not from the UK don’t panic. I hadn’t forgotten the police cars but filtering, or lane splitting, is perfectly legal and acceptable in the UK). Halfway through the queue I passed the two police cars, which still had their sirens blaring and lights flashing. I manfully resisted the urge to wave as I went past and continued on my way home. There were still no problems on the road, this was just normal traffic on a normal day. I never saw the police cars again and the rest of my journey was routine and uneventful.

This started me thinking about systems and processes. Here was a system that was better defined than many. Everyone using the system knows and understands its processes rules and constraints. They even have to pass a test before they can use the system. The two police cars were afforded the very highest priority by executive decree. Once their lights and sirens were turned on they did not have to be bound by the same rules that governed other users of the system. No need to stop at red lights, observe the speed limits or even remain on the correct side of the road. If that wasn’t enough of an advantage every other user of the system was aware of their priority and obliged to make way for them (where possible). In addition they had the benefit of superior driver training. The police officers did have a few constraints: they could not endanger the lives or property of other system users. That’s pretty much the only constraint. No doubt they were well aware of the fact that if they were involved in an accident it would take significantly longer to reach their destination.

And yet I was able to make my way through the system far quicker than our gallant officers without breaking any of its rules. Come on, I knew that there were (at least) two unmarked police cars on the road in an area that is already densely populated with cameras, so I had an extra incentive to ensure that I stuck to the rules. The modern manager knows all about queuing theories, bottleneck theories and even fluid dynamics. All of those theories and rules most definitely apply to traffic systems. 

So what was my edge. Actually I had two:

  1. If you want to move things through a system as quickly as possible then move smaller things.
  2. If you want to get to your destination sooner then be small.