When I was a kid growing up in rural Georgia, I was always outside. And much of that time outside was spent watching animals. My favorite subject? Ants. So much so I was nicknamed, “Ant Man,” by my family and friends. I was always amazed at their behavior. Turns out I’m not the only one…
Researchers at The Georgia Institute of Technology (GT) have been studying ants to learn about their self-organizing behaviors (see 2m video below). In the research results, I see much we can apply to our efforts to become the agile and lean organization we aspire to be. I’m going to share my observations in a series of short blogs. Today, we learn about the secret to ant efficiency – idleness!
Ants are famous for their peerless industriousness and have been revered for ages for their building prowess. The image of the productive ant for centuries has been one of constant movement and relentless energy. But then, like many anecdotes, science came along and studied the subject.
Turns out ants are not the relentless workers we may have thought. But don’t lose respect for them – beneath their legendary industriousness is an incredibly important set of efficiency principles at work. The master tunnelers have evolved to be a self-organized and self-regulating work force. Rather than throwing every available worker at the task, ants seemed to have worked out the optimal ratio of active workers to tunneling. And it is a shockingly low ratio of active to idle workers:
So what can we take from this surprising result of ant research?
I believe our human teams can model our behavior on the ant by avoiding the logical trap and appeal of seeking 100% utilization of team members. For while we are (thankfully) not simply digging tunnels, our work shares similar constraints. For every task there are constraints equivalent to the width of the tunnel that limit the ants ability to swarm the task.
To achieve full agility and speed to delivery, our teams must become experts at identifying the constraints of each new problem they have to solve. They must find the balance between active time and idle time. They must avoid pressure to have all team members “100% utilized” as this undermines overall team productivity and flexibility. We must be like the ant and find the hidden optimization to address every challenge. Be like the ant and work smart, not hard!