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What the Turnpike Teaches Us About Business Consulting

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Harry Howe, President of Howe Leadership, provided a powerful message for us today: When working environments are fraught with uncertainty, focus on flexibility.

All I Really Need to Know I Learned on the New Jersey Turnpike

For me, the corollary to Robert Fulghum’s book “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” took place during a Christmas break in college. One of my fraternity brothers and I were taking a statistics class together in which we had to complete a class project. Our project involved counting the cars queued up at a toll plaza on the New Jersey Turnpike during the peak of holiday travel. If I were to write a book about that day, I would title it “All I Really Need to Know I Learned on the New Jersey Turnpike”. Like many book titles, that’s a bit of an exaggeration – but for me that experience kindled an appreciation for the value of robust business processes.

small business consultants and the New Jersey turnpike

© Flickr user Dougtone

Yesterday I was working with a client on a process and once again I drew from the well of experience that began that day on the New Jersey Turnpike. This client has a fixed window of time in which to serve a large number of customers (like the holiday travelers) with varying needs (similar to one traveler who has exact change, and other who needs change, and a third who has an E-Zpass). The precise number of customers and their specific needs are uncertain. The process the client designed was built for maximum efficiency assuming a particular profile of needs – similar to assuming that for every five vehicles, two would have an E-Zpass, two would have exact change and one would need change.

While the client’s process design was efficient, it was not flexible and if his assumptions about the consistent mix of people’s needs was off, it would be a mess. Using my toll plaza analogy, I advised him to be sure that all his workers were cross trained to handle the variances between exact change, needing change, or E-Zpasses. We stationed someone to monitor the queue at each “toll both”, and planned in the flexibility to convert lanes to any one of the three types throughout the day, re-balancing as needed based on the queues.

In the spirit of “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten”, the simple lesson I learned at the toll plaza and applied yesterday is: in an environment fraught with uncertainty, focus on flexibility. If your work environment includes this element of uncertainty, perhaps your processes need the flexibility of team members who are cross-trained and equipped to perform multiple roles with someone to monitor the process and decide when to open another “E-Zpass lane”.

Harry Howe is President of Howe Leadership and provides hands-on consulting support to business owners who have become victims of their own success.

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