Efficiency is the Enemy of Resilience

Jake Wilder
5 min readFeb 2, 2022

Keep that Slack in Your Schedule. It’s There for a Reason

Photo by Startup Stock Photos from Pexels

“The unexpected always happens,” wrote Peter Drucker in The Effective Executive, “the unexpected is indeed the only thing one can confidently expect. And almost never is it a pleasant surprise.” We all inherently know this. We know that risks and uncertainties are a part of life. We know that things rarely go according to plan. And yet, we can never seem to account for it.

If your boss asks you for a schedule, how does it typically go? You put together a reasonable estimate. Your boss tells you it’s too long. You can’t take that much time. Everyone needs it done sooner.

Make it shorter. Do it faster. Be more efficient.

Take out the slack.

So you do. You assume everything works out perfectly. You cut out all of your margin.

Everyone’s happy.

Until, of course, reality breaks up the party.

I’m always amazed how people assume that if Microsoft Project says it can be done on time, then it will be done on time. Despite years of missing deadlines due to overly aggressive schedules, we continue to set ourselves up for failure.

This misconception isn’t limited to schedules. We’ve spent decades hiring management consultants to make our operations as lean as possible. Our supply chains have never been more efficient. Our inventories have never been lower.

Unfortunately, efficiency stops being a virtue when there are unexpected issues. When there’s no slack in the system to account for it, every problem creates a disruption. Everything is a single-point failure.

We forget that the slack was in the system for a reason. Because nothing ever goes perfectly.

In one of my favorite experiments of all time, a group of Japanese physicists put 22 cars on a circular track and told the drivers to maintain a constant speed.

For a while everything goes well. But 22 cars create a crowded field. There’s little slack in the system. Before long, someone makes a mistake and slows down. It creates a cascade of people hitting their brakes. In the video, you can see the traffic jam form in the opposite direction of the flow. The…

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Jake Wilder

I don’t know where I’m going. But at least I know how to get there.