If you’ve ever been out with kids you will have experienced this.
Let say we set out on a walk someplace.
Everyone sets off at the same time from the same place. All is fine at this point.
Then, inevitably, the older kid starts to pull away from the group, walking faster, with one adult trying to keep up.
The younger one, along with the other adult, goes more slowly.
Within a short amount of time, a gap opens up between the members of the group.
In longer walks or hikes, this can become fairly substantial.
So, how long will it take for the group to reach its destination?
Some of us assume that with such a group, the time that it will take to get where we need to go will be based on the average speed of the individuals in the group.
So, as long as all of us try and keep up, we’ll get there.
This is why, all too often, one of the adults will turn back and shout to the other to keep up, or shout at the kid in front to slow down.
Eliyahu Goldratt in his book The Goal makes the point that averages don’t matter in this kind of situation.
The goal is to get everyone to the finish line. That only happens when the slowest member of the group makes it across.
The time for the group to reach the end, therefore, is the time it takes for the slowest member to reach.
This is something that we see all the time in work.
If there are a number of things that must be done in a sequence to produce a product and different teams do the work involved, the rate at which finished product is created is the same as the work rate of the team that takes the most time to complete its tasks.
Trying to speed up anyone else – or expediting – is a waste of time. Just like shouting in a group, it doesn’t do a single thing to actually improve the process.
The only place where any effort will make a difference is at the bit of the process that is the slowest – the bottleneck.
All too often, we think that if only we all did a better job, the company as a whole would be more productive.
Instead, it turns out, the company will become more productive only if we work on improving the performance of the activity that takes the most time to do.
In the example in the picture, the fact is that we can’t increase how fast the smallest kid in the group can walk.
By putting that child in the front, however, the rest of the group will stay close as although they can move faster as individuals, they can’t move past the slowest person in front.
As a result, the group doesn’t spread out and there is no need to shout any more – it makes for a calmer walk, even if it’s no faster for the group as a whole.
Now, in order to improve, we have to improve the performance of the slowest part of the operation.
That’s why, on a family trip out, we end up carrying the youngest kid so often.