Constraints and Catalysts

Traffic Jam

Question: Why do traffic jams occur, even when no accident has taken place?

It turns out such slow-downs are simple manifestations of physical rules, meaning that the slowest car becomes the speed constraint on the cars directly following it. This is because of all the cars behind the slowest one can only travel at the same speed as the slowest car or slower still (e.g. if one of the cars traveled faster, they would hit the car in front of them).

Likewise, even if you had a funnel with a huge swimming-pool size reservoir for the cone, regardless of how fast water was poured into the top of the funnel, the rate of the water flowing through the funnel would be determined by the width of the neck.

Constrains are part of everyday life. Does this mean that there is no way around them? It depends. Some barriers cannot be changed. Yet, lessons learned in Biology and Chemistry give some clues on general strategies to overcome a good number of such constraints.

Biology: Liebig’s Law of the Minimum states that for plants, growth is not governed by the total amounts of resources available, but solely by the scarcest one. This is why millions of Americans fertilizer their lawns each year with nitrogen and phosphorus: the input of these missing nutrients will result is lush, green grass.

Chemistry: In multi-step chemical reactions, it is common for there to be a rate-limiting step. This means that the entire process is slowed down by a single step in the chain of several reactions. When it is feasible, catalysts are employed which have the power to speed up the slowest part of the reaction.

Food For Thought:

  1. What are the constraints in your business, projects, or relationships?
  2. Is there a possible catalyst that could speed up this constraint? How can your apply the right ‘fertilizers’ to your slow projects?