Is your production line suffering from tortoise and hare syndrome?

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Chris Beckers Published at

As a consultant at R&G, I spend quite a lot of time on the road travelling to and from clients. The down side of this is that traffic jams have become part of my daily life. This is, of course, pretty unpleasant. And you might be surprised to know that most of these jams are completely unnecessary.

You’ve probably experienced the same thing. Being delayed in a long hold up, eventually to speed up again and be left wondering why there is no sign of the accident which presumably caused it. This is because the majority of motorway traffic jams are not caused by collisions or other mishaps, but are the result of bad driving habits.

Let me explain. Impatient drivers try to speed up or cut through the traffic ahead of them by driving too close to the vehicle in front. But when that vehicle doesn’t speed up or get out of the way, the impatient driver is forced to brake. This sets off a chain reaction in the vehicles behind, which can build into surprisingly lengthy traffic jams, especially if multiple drivers are behaving in a similar way. This is clearly illustrated in a number of simple experiments watch video

It’s actually a manifestation of the story of the tortoise and the hare. As counterintuitive as it may seem, if everybody were to drive at a consistently slower speed, they would all reach their destinations faster.

The relevance of this story? There’s a chance that exactly the same thing is happening on your production line.

If, for any reason, your production line slows down or stops, your operators experience the same impatience as drivers on the road. Knowing deadlines must be met, they try to speed things up. But efforts to push things through faster than the line ahead can cope with result in bringing work to a halt, again. Now even more production time is lost. So what do your operators do? They speed up again. You end up in a vicious circle, losing more and more time.

This is not stupidity on the part of your operators. They are just following their natural instincts. The same as I do when I’m on the road. Even though I should know better! It is counterintuitive to slow down in order to get things done faster. And it only works if everyone cooperates. Interestingly, I’ve noticed that when the rush hour speed restrictions are in force, I am often able to drive faster than when they are not. It’s a more relaxing experience too, because I’m not constantly braking and speeding up. Plus I use less fuel and save wear and tear on my brakes and gear system!

So how do these bad habits get fixed? It requires real cultural change. On the road, I’m not sure this change will happen soon because of the anonymity of being in a vehicle. I put my trust in Google, Tesla or BMW to solve the problem. In my opinion, people shouldn’t be allowed to drive!

However, in your factory, it could be a different story. You can decide to change this culture if you want to. It won’t necessarily be easy. But it can be achieved by adopting methods similar to those which apply in traffic, such as enforcing a maximum speed limit which is slower than might seem comfortable. At R&G, we have applied this in many factories, with significantly better results as the outcome.

Chris Beckers is Business Process Consultant at R&G Global Consultants in the Netherlands

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