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Bottlenecks are everywhere – from self-checkout machines to meetings. So how do you beat them?

Some years ago – according to a story I’m fairly sure is true, and which I’ve decided is definitely true for the purposes of today’s column – the operators of Houston airport faced a headache. Travellers on one specific route kept complaining about how long they had to wait for their luggage. Extra baggage handlers were hired, cutting waiting times to eight minutes, but complaints continued unabated. Further study revealed that passengers spent one minute walking to baggage claim, then seven waiting, prompting some bright spark to devise a solution: switch the arrival gate, so the walk took far longer. The result was less time standing around, and much less grumbling.

Airport luggage is a classic example of a bottleneck, “a resource that can’t keep up with the demand placed on it”, to borrow a definition from The Bottleneck Rules, a recent short book by Clarke Ching, drawing on the work of the legendary business scholar Eli Goldratt. And bottlenecks are everywhere – from traffic jams to self-checkout machines to work meetings that proceed, as the saying goes, “at the pace of the slowest mind in the room”.

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