A new study in the journal Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology finds that in ant colonies, a large number of worker ants are idle at any given time. (No, I don't subscribe to this journal -- I just heard about it on the radio.) These ants aren't just lazy slackers, though. As one of the researchers explains it,

. . . in order to make sure that the right number of workers are allocated to all the particular jobs that have to be done, it's beneficial if the colony has some excess workers -- essentially, extra workers, more than the number that they need to get the work completed because it just makes that process run more smoothly -- of actually figuring out who has to do what.

Sounds to me that the ant world has figured out Little's Law -- that the cycle time to get essential ant business done increases exponentially when labor utilization crosses a certain threshold. Maintaining slack in the system enables the colony to be more effective when work has to get done (like collecting food for grasshoppers).

Most companies realize that Little's Law applies to machines and manufacturing processes, but it's often ignored when considering the workload on people. In a misguided quest for increased "efficiency," we overload people with work, eliminating their slack time -- and thereby cross the utilization threshold beyond which response time plummets. We even do this to ourselves: we pack our calendars with meetings, projects, and tasks, guaranteeing that the inevitable glitch in our systems (a meeting that runs long, a software snag, an unexpected problem with a customer, etc.) will create a cascade of failures in our ability to meet deadlines and deliver on time.

A terrific article in Strategy + Business tells the story of St. John’s Regional Health Center, where the operating rooms were at 100 percent capacity. Emergency cases would lead to postponing long-scheduled surgeries, forcing doctors to wait several hours to perform their cases (sometimes as late as 2 a.m.) and requiring staff members to work unplanned overtime. The hospital was constantly behind.

The solution? Leave one operating room unused so that it would be available for unplanned, emergency cases. That room provided the slack the system needed for the hospital to run smoothly. The authors explain:

On the surface, St. John’s lacked operating rooms. But what it actually lacked was the ability to accommodate emergencies. Because planned procedures were taking up all the rooms, unplanned surgeries required a continual rearranging of the schedule. . . .Once a room was set aside specifically for unscheduled cases, all the other operating rooms could be packed well and proceed unencumbered by surprises. The empty room thus added much-needed slack to the system. Soon after implementing this plan, the hospital was able to accommodate 5.1 percent more surgical cases overall, the number of surgeries performed after 3 p.m. fell by 45 percent, and revenue increased.

What's happening in your product development team, your credit department, your finance group? Do you have enough extra workers -- or more to the point, do they have enough slack in their workdays -- to accommodate new demands, respond to emergencies, or answer customer questions in a timely fashion? Or are you running the team with so few people, or have overloaded them with so many initiatives that there's no slack in their schedules?

Can you run your organization as intelligently as an ant?

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