On speeding things up

What I've learned from the hourglass and the snake.

On speeding things up
Photo by Alexandar Todov / Unsplash

People want things to go faster. My whole career has been helping people speed things up: foster care placement, order-to-cash cycles, school transportation, weather radar rendering, customer support escalations, replacement part ordering, academic award selection, environmental site reviews, and so on.

During all this, I’ve learned two points about speeding things up—one from the hourglass, and one from the snake.

1. The hourglass: how to speed anything up

Imagine an hourglass: two glass bulbs, a skinny little bottleneck connecting the two, interior filled with sand and with air.

  • The rate at which sand passes through the neck is controlled by the width of the bottleneck. That’s the distinction between an hourglass and a jar of sand.
  • The duration it takes for all the sand to fall from one side to the other is a function of two things: (a) the rate at which the sand can pass through the bottleneck, and (b) the amount of sand. Adjust these in the right proportion, you have a perfect little timer.

Every hourglass has its bottleneck. Every system has its constraint

To adjust an hourglass, fill it with just the right amount of sand. An hourglass is a simple system. It allows for simple adjustments.

However, you can’t make an hourglass flow faster by yelling at the sand, or putting stray grains of sand onto performance improvement plans, or giving the whole heap tickets to a baseball game. Tell the sand to “do more with less” all day, see where that gets you.

Cute example, but what does it mean for knowledge work, group processes, situated work and learning? That stuff is complicated.

To adjust a complicated system, first, figure out what the constraints are. Where’s the bottleneck? Go look, measure, count.  Once you’ve found those constraints… get comfortable with them. There’s always a key constraint. Remove it and the second-worst one rises, smiling, to take its place. Continuous improvement is all about making sure that changes actually address the constraint, without hurting anybody. Many “improvements” are merely actions that push problems around until they are owned by the unluckiest manager.

In order adjust the system, we must… adjust the system. The hourglass tells us that this is possible: rate, flow, constraint.

2. The snake: you've got to go at the rate you can go

A page from “Be Here Now” by Ram Dass (1971).

This page from Ram Dass' “Be Here Now” helps me be patient with myself—for example, by helping me notice and laugh at those moments when I want to generate more stillness faster, an impulse I bonk into daily while sitting on the meditation cushion.

It also helps me be patient with transformation inside systems. Things only happen so fast, especially inside large organizations, or those with people licking their wounds under autocratic leadership, or where safety is not established and maintained.

“That’s the rate it happens.”

This is not a discouragement against change, but rather a reminder that each moment prefigures the next. It is an encouragement to allow change to happen, to keep courage that it will, to not rip the skin off the snake.