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Overload Journal #134 - August 2016   Author: Chris Oldwood
Barriers can cause bottlenecks. Chris Oldwood considers varying approaches to gatekeeping.

Every morning, I struggle to get ready on time. No matter how hard I try I always seem to be leaving the house at 07:22 (+/- 30 seconds) and cycling like mad to the train station. As a consequence, I then have about a minute and a half to lock my bike up and run around to the front of the station, pass through the ticket barrier, and then skip to the last carriage where I will find a seat waiting for me.

Possibly the least predictable part of this entire journey is passing through the ticket barrier inside the station. What makes this all the more tense is that I can see my train on the platform just the other side and the clock ticking overhead on the departure board, in my head I hear the clock tick hugely amplified as if I’m Jack Bauer in an episode of 24. I’ve put my ticket in, it’s been scanned and I know the back-end must have authorised me all in the blink of an eye but the barrier is mechanical and therefore subject to the laws of physics. I lift my arms to make myself as small as possible and eventually it opens wide enough for me to squeeze through and I’m out onto the platform before another barrier, this time the train doors, shuts me out.

Let’s wind the clock back a few years to when I was fortunate enough to be able to travel to Japan to spend the week with a couple of friends at the Tokyo Game Show. Pretty much all my holidays up to that point had been within the European continent and so I was expecting to feel like the proverbial ‘duck out of water’ as I struggled in a country that used a completely different language for communicating, let alone the difference in culture and customs. Of course, they drive on the same side of the road so that was one less thing to worry about, not that we would be driving.

Naturally, to get around Tokyo we relied heavily on walking and public transport, most notably the rail system. There were many notable differences here too, such as the different little tune they play at each station, at which point a whole bunch of seemingly fast-asleep passengers lurch for the door before the train departs. The other interesting difference I noticed was the barriers they used at the entrance to the platforms – they were open by default. Of course initially we applied our usual British Rail mentality and just tried walking straight through on the assumption that they clearly must be broken or the ticket inspector is outside having a smoke or gone for an extended toilet break. As I entered the barrier a small pair of doors closed swiftly in front of us! At first I was confused, when I stepped back the doors opened, but as I stepped forward they closed again. How strange… Taking a moment to watch the natives it soon became apparent where we needed to touch the machine with our smart card so that the doors would remain open and we could pass through without any further disruption.

Aside from the psychological differences, which I’ll come to in a moment, these two approaches have a very clear operational difference too. In the British case the barrier has to open and close for every single passenger, whereas the Japanese approach only requires the barrier to close when the passenger has forgotten to validate their ticket. This former’s need to continuously operate the barrier means that it likely requires more energy to run, has a far shorter maintenance cycle and potentially a higher mean time-to-fail. The Japanese approach is more optimal simply by doing less work.

But what raises my ire the most about the British barrier is the implicit assumption that I am a fare dodger until I have proven myself innocent by validating my ticket. Far from welcoming me to their facilities my initial experience is one of confrontation as I am challenged to make myself worthy. In stark contrast the Japanese barrier welcomes me (literally) with open arms and invites me to proceed, only barring my entry if I should accidentally make a mistake. You can almost hear the apology from the gates as they shut, sorry that they’ve had to temporarily disrupt your journey. The fact that they’re only knee high and therefore present no real obstacle means they’re really just a speed-bump rather than a barrier.

If only these kinds of barriers were limited to train stations.

Sadly we bump into the more metaphorical kind every day in the office. Instead of the culture making it easy to fall into the pit of success we find ourselves stumbling at every hurdle laid out in our path. The British-style barrier is the norm in most established organisations – you start from a position of being disallowed whatever it is you are after until you have collated enough ‘evidence’ to justify your right to continue with your intended course of action. In essence the tactic is one of pessimism – make it hard to do anything and the chance of mistakes happening will be reduced.

So what’s the alternative? The Japanese-style barrier starts from a position of trust – it assumes that you are probably trying to do the right thing. This is one of optimism. But, crucially, it is not a naïve stance; an act of verification still has to occur. For the purposes of this analogy it would have been better if the Tokyo barriers had actually scanned my card after passing through the barrier, but I’ll have to settle for a leakier metaphor.

The saying ‘trust, but verify’ has its roots in the Cold War where two vast nations were trying to avoid all-out nuclear war. Surely an organisation can start from a position of trusting its employees given that their mistakes will be far less costly?

Overload Journal #134 - August 2016