This is a wonderful piece by Jeanne Marie Laskas, writing for GQ magazine. It’s about a strange little federal agency in the US that runs traces on guns that are associated with a crime, trying to figure out who bought it. It’s long, but well worth reading in it’s entirety. There’s a few parts worth highlighting and looking into a little further. Let’s start with the results:
Despite no increase in budget, no new technology, no new staff: “I’m doing twice as many guns, twice as fast, and almost twice as accurately as we did when I got here in 2005.”
There are plenty who may think this is sorcery, or even enabled by some hidden computerised system (which are verboten, thanks to the paranoia of the gun lobby). It’s actually quite simple though. If you look at most end-to-end processes for delivering value in organisations you typically find something that looks like this:
It doesn’t take a huge amount of insight to spot the problem here. Almost all of the waiting time is caused by queues in the system.
Understanding this doesn’t require a man – or a human computer.
Here’s the part where I get a bit angry.
The writer does a wonderful job of drawing you into the story and making you care about the people. It’s an easy read and the character development of Charlie Houser, in particular, is compelling. Charlie is a federal agent who came to the agency in 2005 and seems to have led the transformation of the way the work works. It’s a shame though, that she does a hack job of explaining how the results were actually achieved.
There’s a passing mention of ISO9000 and Six Sigma, sounds kinda scary. Then there’s a wonderful part in which Charlie does his best to convey just how easy it is to learn this stuff. No need to go to some fancy university. No machine learning or any (shudder) computer programming involved. It came out of a book. From a book store.
“I just found it at Barnes & Noble,” he says, in a tone suggesting that this shit is basic.
What the writer is implying here is that this isn’t basic. That Charlie has some special gift. That Charlie is actually a genius (despite him attempting to explain how accessible this is).
Now, I get it – people might be turned off if you attempt to explain even the basics of queueing theory to them. There’s a good chance they’ll get lost and stop reading. But to ascribe the genius to a man (surrounded by a bunch of “ladies”) is just sloppy. Would it have been so hard to do a bit more homework?
Instead, we get one sentence about the rate at which gun descriptions can be typed up, in which Charlie proves that he (or was it one of the “ladies”?) can operate a stopwatch and do basic division. Charlie goes on to compare one queue with three servers vs three queues with one server each. Before we get to the point: