Living with the slack in the machine


It’s been a bi-coastal weekend, from the Right coast to the Left. I flew out of Saint John at noon, tripping across the time zones to arrive in Vancouver at 5:00 p.m. Two nights later I traded back the gain, leaving Vancouver at midnight and spending the entire night and half a day getting home.

Crossing time zones wasn’t the only lost time on this trip to attend my nephew’s graduation. While he was busy with graduation parties, friends, a final project to write, a girlfriend and a weekend gig DJing, I ended up with too much free time. I hadn’t rented a car or a hotel room, instead staying at his apartment, which was in strike-down mode as he’s moving out in a couple of weeks. Everything was a bit of a hike from the apartment, and to make matters worse, on the first morning there, when I got back from a walk to Starbucks for my morning coffee, I found I’d been locked out in the rain. After cell phoning around and hitting voice mail, I managed to get back into the apartment in through an unlocked window.

There was a paradox to the trip—lots of rushing to make just-in-time, cross-terminal airline connections mixed with big chunks of downtime in between—wading through time zones, alone-time in the apartment waiting for my nephew and long walks in the rain. All that got me thinking about both the tension and the slack in the system. My first reaction was to resent the slackness. I mean, I’d set out to have a busy, interesting trip, to meet with friends and relatives and have a good time and there I was, alone most of the time. But on reflection, the slack time gave me a chance to emotionally reconnect to the West Coast environment again. It occurred to me that maybe all systems depend on having some slack.

That’s certainly true in machines. Without mechanical slack wheels can’t turn, shafts can’t rotate on bearings and gears can’t shift. A critical degree of tension and slackness is essential.

I stumbled on this mechanical duality a couple of weeks ago on the Internet in a reference to the SR-71, the famous US spy plane. Also known as the Blackbird, the plane was purpose-designed in the late 1950s to do high atmosphere espionage over the Soviet Union. As these things go, it was a work of art, and technical mastery. Engineered to travel at three times the speed of sound, its skin was made of titanium, some of it corrugated, to withstand the heat generated by the friction of the air rushing over the plane’s surface at Mach 3. The heat was so extreme that the pillars on the inside of the cockpit would heat up to over 240 degrees Fahrenheit. Of course the exterior was a whole lot hotter.

This was the fastest, most technologically advanced aircraft ever built, bar none. For example, the first space suits were actually designed as life support systems for SR-71 pilots. But on the ground, the Blackbird was, well, just plain sloppy. None of its body panels fit together. There were big 2-inch gaps between everything, and when it was fuelled up and sitting on the tarmac before takeoff, the aviation fuel would actually pour out through the gaps between the panels. That was one slack machine. But all that slack was essential. Because once the Blackbird was airborne and got up to speed, all its body parts would heat up, each one expanding to create an integrated supersonic machine—only perfect when running at Mach speeds. If the slack hadn’t been there, the machine would have crushed itself.

I would call this the intentionality of design. Of course a lot of slackness in systems would seem to be unintentional, such as the downtime spent waiting in line at the Horton’s drive-thru. We humans waste a lot of energy on unintentional slack. TVs that stay on in sleep mode, pilot lights in stoves, all kinds of ways.

Like the chain reaction through a line of boxcars as a locomotive begins to pull, organizations have a lot of slack too. A great deal of it is unintentional, but some of it may also be quite intentional. For example, organizations in transition—even entire economies in transition—seem to invite a lot of slack into the system. The financial bailouts of Wall Street by both the Bush and Obama Administrations are good examples. Unlike the auto industry bailouts with the tight business case restrictions, the financial bailout was full of slack, enough slack to hopefully re-flood the markets with cash (which hasn’t quite happened yet).

Career opportunists love to engineer this kind of slack. To take control of organizations they can reduce the number of board meetings, for example. They can re-engineer oversight policies, allowing them to hide their personal objectives and activities in the shadows. The list of these quasi-ethical gap-creating methods is probably endless. Conrad Black seemed to be one of these tactical geniuses, at least for a while.

I see this a lot in my consulting. When personal power agendas become more important than organizational goals—or societal goals—watch out. I’ve seen good firms break into pieces. I’ve seen good people leave good organizations. All because someone put a personal agenda ahead of the group goal.

That’s one reason why I’ve come to respect a well-functioning board of directors. A good board may not be the most visionary or ambitious tool in an organizational tool bag, but it certainly has an essential role in protecting the essence and direction of an organization—in other words keeping its integrity tight.

This is a part of the current problem in US politics today. Over the past 5 decades the Executive Branch has become increasingly more powerful as it has levered the gaps in power to the president’s advantage, while the Congress has become a less effective regulator. In fact our current financial problems stem directly from 30 years of privatizing and dismantling public oversight of the financial sector. We now see the end effects of too much slack in the system.

It all comes down to balance. If systems—or lives—are too tightly controlled flexibility is impossible. But we can’t have things so slack that they’re falling apart. Like everything else, it all comes down to a bit of wisdom and a lot more vigilance.


Popular Posts