How To Always Be On Time

If you're constantly running late, it's time to figure out what your bottlenecks are and get rid of them.
Innovation Evangelist, 24/7 Innovation
June 08, 2011

If you have been around for a while, you might recall the Hertz commercials from the 70s where the ex-football star and criminal, O.J. Simpson, is running through airports hurdling over rows of departure lounge seats and luggage. I know of other road warriors who also run through airports, priding themselves in being able to arrive at the gate just as the doors are closing.

Not me. In fact, I tend to get to most places early. And there is a good reason.

My background is in process design where there is a concept called “the theory of constraints.” The general idea is that success is limited by at least one constraining process—a bottleneck. In the business world, this means if you want to improve capacity, the most effective way is to increase the throughput at the bottleneck so that overall throughput is increased. You can think of this as strengthening the weakest link in the chain. Or to provide a more visual representation, by expanding the neck of an hourglass, throughput will be significantly improved allowing the sand to move more rapidly to its destination.

These bottlenecks aren’t too difficult to spot. As an example, XYZ company launches a huge marketing campaign for a new product, but the call center is inadequately staffed to handle the volume of incoming requests. This bottleneck will cost them potential customers. By improving the throughput of the call center, overall throughput for the company will be improved.

While it is common for companies to employ the theory of constraints to improve business results, I also use aspects of this model to increase success in my own personal life. Take flying—with over 1 million miles of flying under my belt, I have never missed a flight. How is this possible? I identified the places where bottlenecks typically occur, and I put those behind me first.

There are many potential logjams we can face when trying to catch a flight: traffic on the way to the airport and long lines at the check-in counter, baggage drop-off, or security. Any one of these could prevent me from getting to my plane on time. I can’t predict when it will happen nor do I have the capability to minimize any of these potential bottlenecks (although I do try to fly during slower times when traffic to and in the airport will be less).

Instead of working in my office until the last minute and then scrambling to get to the plane on time, I get to the airport early and continue my work there. I always check in first and drop off my luggage. Although I could then sit down at Dunkin’ Donuts and relax, I still have another bottleneck—security—ahead of me. If possible, I go through security before purchasing my bagel and Diet Coke. Besides, we can’t bring liquids through security anymore. I live a mere 15 minutes from Logan International Airport, yet I typically leave for the airport over two hours before the flight. This extra time lets me put any potential bottlenecks behind me, allowing me to be settled and focus on the next task at hand.

With technology these days, I can be as productive at the airport as I would be in my own office. I have a BlackBerry which delivers my e-mail. I use my BlackBerry as a modem to connect my computer to the Internet. And my iPad, with 3G service, also provides connectivity. The airport is an effective remote office.

I put bottlenecks behind me nearly every day. If I am heading to a meeting, but haven’t eaten, I may drive through the known traffic spots before settling in to get some food. I always leave plenty of extra time. The worst that happens is I arrive at my destination ahead of schedule. And since I assume that I will be early, I plan activities—work or pleasure—for me to do during this spare time. The good news is that I never have to have a contingency plan for if I am late.

With potential bottlenecks behind you, you save yourself time and frustration. You will almost always be on time. And you can still be highly productive when you arrive at your destination early. As a matter of fact, there have been numerous studies that show that people who are not under severe time constraints operate at higher levels of performance. Admittedly, you may not get that wonderful adrenaline rush this way.

But personally, I think it’s criminal to have to run through airports.