Lessons from a Traffic Jam

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It was a normal day and as usual as I was heading to work. And all of a sudden before I could even realize it, I got stuck in a traffic jam. Traffic jams have become a way of life in metros and is something, which is mostly unpredictable. It is a pain, disrupts schedules and is a common excuse that people give for reaching late to work. But have you ever wondered what causes these traffic jams? One such day I decided to get out of my car and observe the various events that leads to this event.

A bird’s eye view shows you that the road is clogged with vehicles and there is no place for movement. In most traffic jams(if not at signal, where the movement is predictable), this is true. It can often be noted that the vehicles are arranged in such a way that they block any possible exit. It may be be one large vehicle that broke down midway, one parked in an awkward position or a vehicle trying to turn, thereby blocking the road for further movement.

But this incident(of for e.g. a truck breaking down) in isolation is never the reason for a traffic jam. It is the course of events that follow that leads to a traffic jam. As soon as there is an obstacle on the road people start to move their vehicles ahead in a haphazard way with no consideration for the vehicles coming behind them. This is because of two reasons:

  1. Everyone wants to get their vehicle as ahead as possible in the queue
  2. Nobody has any idea about how the other vehicles are placed on the road and what is the best that they can do to ensure smooth flow on the road

(provided someone has the intention of greater good)

An added factor is the absence of a Traffic controller who sometimes even if present has no idea on how to disperse the vehicles and ensure a smooth flow. Road rage when vehicles hit or brush against each other is most common in traffic jams. These quarrels form intermediate blockades, which may further block any movement of vehicles behind them.

Now since the traffic was at a standstill, I started thinking about what can be done about traffic jams so that either they can be prevented from happening in the first place or resolved quickly when it occurs. I then realized that a traffic jam is nothing but a situation where the roads have more vehicles than its normal capacity, i.ea capacity that can ensure smooth flow. In addition to that, whenever there is an obstacle, drivers start taking local decisions (that think will suit them) with no considerations about others’ movement only to realize very soon that they too are stuck.

It is then that it dawned upon me that the Multi project environments that we usually see are not different from traffic jams. These environments too are chaotic and every project is perpetually stuck and the respective project managers have very little control over completion of their projects.

For a better understanding let us consider this corollary. Every Project in a project environment is like a vehicle travelling on the path towards completion and every project manager is its driver. But the path towards completion is shared- they share the same resources like vehicles in traffic share the same path. Every project manager wants to move his project ahead and there often there is a quarrel for resources as to who gets it first. Like in every traffic jam scenario, in organizations too, it’s he who shouts the most who gets to go ahead. Just as whole place around a jam is polluted with smoke and noise, Multi project environments which are mismanaged also create a chaotic work environment bringing down the morale of those who work thereby making the execution even slower.

Now for the traffic jam to get resolved three things would be necessary:

1. A system to prevent further entry:

Apps like Google Now, indicates or forewarns us from entering traffic prone zones so that you can choose an alternative route or even postpone your trip. Similarly, a system is needed in organizations to forewarn firms from committing to project deadlines to customers in heavy traffic situations in organizations, where they are already working on more projects can be executed in that time frame. If they do they will eventually fail to deliver and lose money in the form of penalties.

A system of WIP control serves this purpose. Projects beyond the WIP limit are frozen and any further project is taken only when a project from the existing WIP is completely flushed out. Based on this WIP information the management can take decisions whether to commit for a project or not. Obviously they may lose out on some projects but that’s the only way to come of the traffic or the chaotic situation they are in.

2. Change in behavior of people:

People must realize that by trying to move their vehicle ahead, there are actually intensifying the jam by leaving no space for flow to happen. Many times if vehicles wait for their turn to move out they would realize that they can move out much faster rather than trying to move ahead and blocking others’ movement. Sadly a change in just one person’s attitude alone will never bring about this change and it requires the wholehearted cooperation of everyone towards this goal.

In TOC parlance this is what we call as subordination. For projects to move faster in a multi project environment, it is very essential to have a priority list of projects, which dictates who gets to work with the shared resources first and so on. But what is most essential is the subordination to this priority list at all times.

3. A system to remove blockades as and when it arises:

The capacity of a traffic controller is limited and he cannot be at more than one place at a time. How nice it would be if he had a system that lets him manage the traffic remotely by providing information on where he has to focus based on the blockades as and when they arise.

Sadly projects are not managed so. The traditional Project management software focus only on the activities on the critical path and ignores those activities which are not on it. But if these are ignored for long, they will become the biggest blockades hampering progress of the project. Hence any IT/project management system that is deployed for monitoring projects must give :
a) A holistic picture in the form of a snapshot depicting the status of the progress of projects across the shared resources.
b) An issue resolution mechanism that highlights the issues as and when they arise. An escalation mechanism can then be set up so that these issues based on their severity can if necessary, be escalated. If a project manager or the portfolio manager is not able to resolve an issue for a considerably long time, it can be addressed by the top management.

Thus we can see that projects can be managed effectively in a multi project environment if the simple principles of flow management are followed while managing them.

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