What the traffic in Jakarta taught me about slack

· March 18, 2015

Like most cities in Asia the traffic in Jakarta is horrible. Especially the motorbikes that are plentiful is an interesting phenomena to observe.

Once you mange (took me a year to do) to look past the total disrespect for human life on display, the drivers own lives as well as other people, I saw patterns that have bigger influence on at least me.

In this short post I wanted to share those with you and maybe you can also get some thoughts that can help you.

My good friend Håkan Forss wrote an excellent presentation called What can traffic in stockholm teach you about queuing theory. That inspired me to write this post, at least a little.

They never stop

The first thing that we need to observe is that the motor bikes never stop. This knowledge will save your life. Don’t ever expect an Asian motorbike driver to stop. Because they will not. Not even when you are in his way. I know this from experience.

Why? Well… the traffic is so stocked up that every little move forward is a gain. Even if it’s super dangerous (going the wrong way, cutting 4-6 lines of crossing traffic etc). And even if you gain just 1 m. They will try to move.

The cars will do the same, but that’s limited by their size. With motorbikes there’s always small gaps between the cars that can be exploited. I’ve seen people leaning their bikes and pushing cars forward 2-3 cm to get forward another 2 meters.

They are small

Yeah, the motorbikes are small and fit in all kinds of gaps. This has consequences that are interesting. For example, at a traffic light the cars are stuck but the motorbikes can, and will, finds way to get forward.

Not only does this mean that the first 6 meters is a chaos of motorbikes facing all kinds of ways once the green lights is switched on. But this also means that the cars will not move for quite some time when the green light is switched on.

Flow? Solutions…

Ok… all of this is nothing new for most of us. A bit amusing maybe, if we don’t have to experience it everyday. But is there something here that we can learn from? Let’s think for awhile about the goal of traffic… Ah, well, at least the people in the traffic. They have plenty of time to think so we can spend a few seconds doing that too.

Very few people enjoy the traffic jams, I would presume. They are out in the traffic because they want to get somewhere, preferably fast. The faster the better. So as a collective we want the traffic to flow faster or at least more predicable.

Fun fact: I heard that in Jakarta there's special limousines that you can take from one office to another. They have conference equipment in the car. You hold the meeting in the traffic jam.
Very smart - but more a hack than a fix

What would be the solution? Let’s solve Jakarta’s traffic problems shall we, he said in a humble voice… Well, if you read Håkans presentation you’d soon realize that packing more vehicles onto the road is not really making the flow better. In fact, I hope you realized that without Håkans presentation but he tells it clear…

But let’s consider another solutions: no motorbikes allowed! Now I have ca 12 million Indonesian people hating me, but fearlessly I press on.

No motorbikes, what would that do? It would still be a mess, no doubt. But there will be gaps in between the cars that cannot be filled up. That will create a little more structure and a smoother, more regular, flow. With a smoother flow comes the possibility to get a faster flow.

In fact, to redeem myself from the wrath of the motorbikers of Indonesia, you could argue that the same goes for removing the cars. That would also create a smoother flow, I think. With smaller work items (motorbikes) in progress. That in turn means more agility, flexibility and responsiveness. Put together; no cars would probably make for an even faster flow in the traffic.

But someone wise would have to make the math up for that before I fully believe it. For now I stick “no motorbikes allowed”, since it also support my next section better.

Projects and personal life

What are the gaps between the cars for a project? I mean, if the traffic were to represent a project or any kind of list of work items that needs to be done - what would be the gaps in between the vehicles?

Slack. Periods of not producing work that directly contributes towards to the goal.

Consider the motorbikes filling those spaces up all the time. They are not really reaching their goal… faster. They came one meter closer but when the traffic starts to flow again they, and everyone else, moves slower because they filled the gap up.

With no motorbikes there will be gaps/slack in the traffic. And that’s ok. Because it will provide for a smoother, faster more regular flow.

In a project, if you end up with half a day of nothing to do, what do you do? Put your feet up? Start something new so that you are busy? Think about something that could improve the life of the people in the project, or the product?

Slack is needed for us to be able to reflect. In reflecting we might find better ways of doing things. This is why all agile process have some kind of retrospective feature built in.

For us personally… what do you think when you have nothing to do? What do you fill that time with? Do you fill it?

I can tell you that for a long time I stressed a lot to try to get time to rest. That’s so stupid that I cannot believe it when I’m writing it. But I stressed, and by the way often forget and still do stress, with dishes and other chores to be able to … sit in the sofa.

Instead going a little bit slower, not filling every second with busyness, and maybe let my mind wander as I do the dishes.

Even worse; when I play with my kids I also try to keep up on my reading list. A list that I’ve set up for myself. Just to be up to my standard. Instead of enjoying the slack and reflection with my kids.


I knew it! This was one of those posts without any big finish and conclusion. But I hope it spurred some thoughts and ideas with you too, as it did with me when I wrote it.

I wrote during slack time at work, by the way.

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