Popular hikes in the Pacific Northwest carry a lot of visitors on the weekends. It’s a great way to meet people. If you do enough of these hikes, you start to see patterns in the sort of folks who share the trail. Archetypes start to form. There’s the family with kids, the soloist, the backpackers, the trail runner, the hand-holding couple, the pack of teenagers, the tourists with their enormous cameras.

Some of these folks are loud, some are quiet, some have no sense of etiquette, but my favorite are the tired ones who have lost their patience. This used to be me. These are the folks who embark on an unfamiliar trail without a sense of how long it will take. The effort was more strenuous than they thought and they often didn’t pack enough water. Whenever we encounter each other, they invariably stop, catch their breath, make some small talk, and get to the same question every time: “How much longer?”

How much longer to the destination? How much longer do I have to walk?

In some cases, the real question they’re asking is implied underneath this. It’s the question of “Is this worth it or should I turn around?” But most times, people aren’t thinking of abandoning the hike. They’re simply curious. They just want to know the length of the delay because the uncertainty is irritating. It’s the equivalent of the child who asks “Are we there yet?”

In systems thinking, this is referred to as a delay. Not the wait time or travel time or processing time. The delay. It’s an interesting distinction within the language and, I think, a more accurate way of describing that time between when you order food at a restaurant and actually eat it.

No one pays for the wait time. No one wants the wait time to be longer. That’s because we don’t see that time as a period of waiting. We see it for what the systems thinker calls it: a delay.

Some delays are perfectly natural and understood. No one considers the time it takes for a crop to grow from seed to fruit to be a “delay”. Unless the timeframe for growth is somehow extended due to, say, weather conditions. But it is still a delay.

Same with online videogames. There is a delay, however minute, between the exchange of data from the player’s actions to the game server. This delay is so small that it’s acceptable. Until latency increases and you get “lag”. Then a game becomes unplayable. Within that given system, the delay never disappears. It’s always there. But only when we feel it do we get impatient.

The point is that most delays are perfectly tolerable to us. The delay that is the regular commute to work is another example. We only get frustrated when there is a traffic jam and the delay is extended.

Delays are critical, necessary components of a system. It is the time that allows the system to respond to new information and find a new equilibrium. It is also the point where many of us managers think we can intervene and make improvements.

But nothing in a system, not even our so-called “improvements”, can happen without a price. As Donella Meadows writes in this week’s book,  

Delays that are too short cause overreaction, “chasing your tail” oscillations amplified by the jumpiness of your response. Delays that are too long cause damped, sustained, or exploding oscillations, depending on how much too long. Overlong delays in a system with a threshold, a danger point, a range past which irreversible damage can occur, cause overshoot and collapse.

I think we’ve all seen the overreaction before. “Chasing your tail” refers to the way in which one overreaction creates another counter-overreaction and then another counter-counter-overreaction ad infinitum. A great example is the yo-yo dieting effect that people can get caught in when trying to lose a lot of weight.  

Delays that are too long are an underreaction and we’ve seen those, too. How many people have waited too long to visit the doctor at the sign of health problems?

It can be very difficult to define a necessary delay and its length. Far too often, we define it by social pressure and desires to appease others. But a chef will never allow anyone to rush them more than they think is appropriate to prepare a fine dish. The customer, in the chef’s mind, is not always right. Because the chef understands the necessity of every action and the necessary delay that’s needed for the sauce to peak or the roast to cook. In this case, the chef has a bigger overarching goal that has nothing to do with instant gratification.

So when hikers or diners or others ask the question “How much longer?” the systems-thinker knows that problem isn’t necessarily with the delay. It’s more an issue of their confusion over the price for what they’re paying for. If you want a great dinner, wait for the chef. If you want a great hiking destination that afford the most spectacular views, keep walking. The goal, and its price, is the thing to always keep in mind. The delay then feels not only tolerable but even necessary.

Photo by Orlova Maria on Unsplash