I was travelling last week, with all kinds of interesting scholarly books and papers in tow. I should have known better, though. Once I got out of the office, the urge to take a break from heavy thinking was irresistible.
Even without my cracking a book, fate still conspired to teach me a powerful lesson about how vulnerable is our tightly optimized, interconnected world.
I was eager to return home Friday after finishing a series of meetings in Washington, DC. But my flight from Dulles to Logan was delayed by stormy weather. Adding insult to injury, the airline changed gates for my flight four different times.
When my fellow travellers and I finally boarded our plane, it was hard to believe our hours of wandering concourses C and D were over. Sad to say, they had just begun. Not long after our plane pulled away from the jetway, the pilot announced that there was quite a wait for clearance from air traffic control. In fact, the pilot's legal allotment of duty hours was going to expire before we could possibly finish the 90-minute flight to Boston. We pulled back to the jetway.
There were no other pilots to fly our plane, but there was another flight to Boston, at another (familiar) gate. A flight attendant informed us that there was space for most of us to board that flight, but probably not all of us.
They opened our plane and a human stampede raged to the next gate. As the very last person off our ill-fated plane, I was in bad position to make the next flight, but in perfect position to watch the emerging drama. Rather than stand hopelessly at the end of the new line, I sat by the new gate and watched two poor airline attendants try to handle the situation at the head of the line.
At first, it was kind of funny watching the fireworks as the airline attendants lost their cool in the face of an entire planeload of angry passengers desperate to change their reservations. There were roughly two lines, each 100 people long. No one knew which line to stand in to get a seat on the next flight to Boston, and the airline attendants kept getting angry at each new ill-informed person at the head of the line.
The tragic humor wore off when a few savvy travellers stopped by to tell me the really bad news. With all the cancelled flights from Friday and the Democratic National Convention coming up Monday, there were no seats available from Washington to Boston for the rest of the weekend. This was not funny!
About twenty of us didn't make it on the last flight to Boston. We were told to report to yet another gate and stand in another enormous line for hotel vouchers and new flight reservations. There I had the good fortune to stand next to Thomson Nguy, Alliance Manager of Siebel Systems, Inc. We passed much of our time in line reflecting on how hard it is to build close relationships (between people, processes, or anything) without setting up the potential for unexpected catastrophe. Consider two hours of rain, a busy airport, and one tired pilot. Taken separately, each one of these is no big deal. Add them together in a tightly optimized system, stir with one national convention, and the resulting chain reaction can leave a couple dozen people homeless over an entire weekend.
When Thomson and I got to the head of the line, the customer service agent tried to tell us that we were on our own to find lodging for the night!
Is it possible to optimize too much? Does slack do more than add cost to a system? What happens to relationships in organizations focused on assigning responsibility and minimizing costs? I've been thinking about all these questions recently, and this experience has become for me a good parable to help shed more light on the issues.