Lines of Innovation – Part 1

by Scott Bowden

I have spent a lot of time thinking about lines lately. There were several reasons for this, including a repeated experience at the local Post Office where the line (or queue) to get to the service desk was long, slow, and frustrating.

My other recent experiences with lines included a visit to the Mitad del Mundo (center of the world) monument in Ecuador at the equator as well as a visit to the Four Corners site of four converging state borders (Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado) in the American Southwest. It struck me that lines can be sources of inspiration for innovation in terms of physical lines (queues, roads, structures, etc.) as well as virtual lines (borders, latitude/longitude, etc.).

In thinking about lines and innovation, I was surprised at how quickly multiple concepts of lines starting popping into my mind and how so many of these provide important lessons for the modern innovation practitioner. Because of the large number of examples of lines in innovation, I will divide this article into two parts.

Lines (Queues) at the Post Office

My current residence does not have onsite mail delivery, which forced me to rent a Post Office box at the local Post Office. Like other Americans, I use regular mail less and less, but on occasions where I need to receive a package that was shipped via the U.S. Post Office, I sometimes have to go to the service desk at the Post Office so a worker can retrieve my goods.  On many occasions, this line is long and slow-moving, which can be frustrating for a person who spends a lot of time thinking about process efficiency.  I have analyzed the line while waiting and have redesigned the process (in my mind, at least, for the Post Office does not seem to be interested in my suggestions), recognizing that about two-thirds of the people in line were picking up mail or packages from their PO Box while the other third needed service at the desk (sending packages, setting up a PO Box, or other time-consuming tasks). Picking up mail or packages took about 1-2 minutes each customer, while the other tasks took 4-5 minutes or longer. The line bogged down when all of the postal workers had to process the slower customers, thus holding up the rest of the line to the point where it almost reached the outer door.

If the Post Office had changed its process so that the package and mail pickups were in a single line and all other requests were in a different line, then the former would keep moving quickly and the latter would be a subset of the larger population, thus the line would not stretch out to the door.

Innovation Lesson – I do not pretend to offer any fundamental insight into queuing theory.  Indeed, queue management is an area that receives a great deal of attention in innovation, from the numerous studies to determine the fastest way to load passengers onto an airplane to how to keep customers happy while waiting in extremely long ride lines at Disney Theme Parks. At its most basic element, the challenge of a queue is typically addressed through manipulation of supply or demand. A company can increase the supply of people processing the individuals in the line by adding more service agents or gates. A company can also reduce demand by finding other ways to deliver the required services to the people in the line, such as self-service or automation.

The innovation lesson here is a reminder that innovation can be applied to solve simple problems using simple techniques. The Post Office line would move much more efficiency with a simple A/B gate at the entrance to divide customers depending on their needs, and a corresponding specialization at the service desk.  Note that this would not require a new smartphone application, artificial intelligence (AI), or automation of any sort, yet it would still result in a superior outcome.

As innovators we sometimes focus too much on trying to apply the latest and greatest technologies to drive solutions to problems, which comes at the expense of simpler, easier to implement solutions.

This is not to say that the Post Office could not benefit from smartphone apps, AI, or automation, but there are simpler steps that can be taken to precede these others.

Phone Lines to Call Centers

During part of my career in Information Technology I specialized in the technologies of Interactive Voice Response (IVR) and call routing. Although phone calls have dropped in importance with the prevalence of web, smartphone, and other means of accessing companies for customer service, there are still individuals who prefer to speak to a live agent to solve their customer service issues.

This requires the IVR (to provide self service and determine why the customer is calling) along with a call routing system (such as Cisco Intelligent Contact Management) to route the call to the correct call center and agent to handle the call. Such a system sounds simple, but when you have dozens of call types, dozens of call centers, thousands of agents, and thousands of calls every day, the complexity can become overwhelming.

Although there are numerous strategies for call routing, the one that we used most often from Cisco was a combination of Longest Available Agent (LAA) and Minimum Expected Delay (MED). These two call routing strategies are used depending on the state of agents in the various call centers. Assuming that there are agents sitting at their desk ready to handle calls, but not on a live call at the time, the call routing system would use LAA as a technique to can find the agent who has been idle the longest time and send the next call that comes in to that agent. This ensures the most efficient use of the agents in responding to customer calls, and balances the workload so that one group of agents aren’t handling calls every second of the day while others sit idle.

If there is a large burst of calls and all agents are occupied when a call comes in, then the call routing system would analyze all the agents at all the call centers and perform calculations to determine where the caller is likely to have the shortest delay in waiting for an agent. For example, if one call center has 5 busy agents and another has 50 busy agents, then it is more likely that the center with 50 agents will have an agent free up to be ready to handle the next call, so that site will get the next caller, who will wait in queue until the call can be taken by an agent. The actual calculations are more complex than this example, but this should give you an idea of the general concept behind the system of how to move callers efficiently across a network of call centers.

Innovation Lesson – Although the technologies behind LAA and MED were innovative at the time they were created and first used, the lesson for the innovator lies in the fundamental concepts behind these terms. At its most basic level, these two routing strategies focus on the efficient use of resources, with the key variable being whether any resources are available at a given point in time.

For the innovator, this thought process can be applied to a technology or process in terms of where one should focus one’s energies in applying innovation.  As one looks at a technology or process, an early step should be to review the utilization of resources individually. If there are steps in a process where excessively idle resources repeatedly appear, then the innovator may want to think about how to combine steps or change the process flow so that those resources are more effectively utilized.

To use an overly-simplistic example, if one is studying a 10-step process with 10 workers (one worker for each step), and the workers at steps 7 and 9 are frequently idle (for whatever reason), then one should examine whether changes could be made to the process to combine steps so that those idle resources could help out other workers in the overall process. The same could be true for any under-utilized component of a technological solution, perhaps in terms of replacing a single-use component that is rarely used for a dual-use component that provides multiple functions at a lower cost. In the case of MED, an innovator might study a process and see that all the resources involved in executing the process are overloaded.

In this case, the thought process for applying innovation could be to think about the process step where an input of new thinking could most effectively reduce the workload on an overloaded resource to return it to full utilization. In other words, the innovator should analyze what steps could be taken that would result in the minimum expected delay in returning a resource to normal utilization. If all the resources are fully utilized but not overloaded, then the innovator could examine which resource would reduce its utilization the most through an application of an innovative solution.

Pilgrimage as a Line

A pilgrim is someone who has a destination in mind and focuses on that destination throughout the journey. Some pilgrimages are long and arduous, and often have a religious theme. Faithful Muslims must commit to making the pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia at least once in their lifetimes, while Christians can follow a number of pilgrimage paths, among which the most famous is probably the Camino de Santiago in Spain. Some modern pilgrims even take this trail barefoot in order to simulate accurately the experience of their medieval ancestors who walked on the route.

The Camino de Santiago’s well-known and ubiquitous symbol is that of the scallop shell.  The shell, along with a yellow arrow, appears on trees, sidewalks, roads, and buildings along the trail to help pilgrims find their way. It is not known precisely why the scallop shell became a symbol for the trail, but there are several possible theories.

One theory states that the parallel and converging lines on the outer part of the scallop shell are a metaphor for the various routes that pilgrims take to get to the tomb of Saint James in Santiago de Compostela in Spain. The pilgrims often wore scallop shells attached to their garments or hats throughout the centuries, and the shell itself may have found use as a cup for drinking, a bowl for eating, and a measuring device for donated food from churches along the route.

Graham Robb, a British author and scholar of French history and literature, has spent a great deal of time exploring the French countryside as part of a 14,000-mile bike ride across the country. In The Discovery of France, Robb makes an interesting observation about pilgrimage trails and remote villages.  Robb notes that as a cyclist, he was able to observe towns and villages that one would never see in detail from a car, and he found a correlation between the way dogs behaved towards him and the location of the village relative to nearby pilgrimage trails.

In the Pyrenees Mountain region in Southern France, Robb writes, dogs would be more aggressive in terms of barking and chasing cyclists when he was in a village that was part of a centuries-old pilgrimage trail. He reasons that this is because those villages had grown accustomed over the centuries to a series of strangers passing by frequently and moving on, never to return. This contrasts with the typical village or town where passersby were locals on the way to the market or church who would frequent an area. In those types of places, he noticed a friendlier reception from the local canines.

Innovation Lesson From an innovator’s standpoint, we often find ourselves in the position of the pilgrim traveling through new territory with limited guideposts for directions.  We know where we are trying to go in many cases, but we must undertake an arduous journey to get there. The destination is a vision of where we want to take our innovation in terms of a new product or service, but that typically would start as just an idea, just as the pilgrims start their journey knowing that they want to arrive at the tomb of Saint James at Santiago de Compostela without thinking about what exactly they plan to do once they arrive.

Innovators can benefit from several lessons from pilgrims.  First, the value of the pilgrimage is often in the journey itself, and innovators should remember that the discovery process, even a lengthy one, of arriving at an innovation is valuable, particularly if that discovery process yields a better final product or generates other ideas to explore in parallel. Second, a pilgrim needs signs and guidance along the way, and just as the Camino de Santiago has arrows and scallop shells, so, too, does the innovator need to look for signs along the way of his or her journey to make sure he or she is on the right path to innovation. These signs can be feedback from colleagues or the marketplace, and can serve as reassurances that the work one is undertaking is heading in the right direction.

Finally, an innovator, like a pilgrim, should be prepared to handle difficult challenges (barking dogs), because the essence of the innovation journey, like the pilgrimage, involves treading down a known path as a stranger. In other words, one may be following in the footsteps of others, but the inherent nature of the innovation work requires one to be working in new areas in which the innovator is not familiar.

Power Lines and the Transition from Steam to Electricity

The BBC produces a fascinating podcast called the “50 Things That Made the Modern Economy.” In this series, Tim Harford, senior columnist for the Financial Times newspaper, discusses inventions that have changed the world in ways that make our modern way of life work. The episode titled “Dynamo” examines in detail the technological ramifications of the transition from steam power to electricity.

Before electricity and small electric motors became prevalent in factories, Harford notes, the overall design of a factory and the flow of work was organized around the siting of a large steam engine and the various pullies and contraptions that were required to impart force from the engine to various machines around the factory.  Steam engines were only efficient at larger sizes, so a factory would typically have one or a few large steam engines generating power for the machines in the factory.

Through a large spinning driveshaft that fed power from the large, onsite steam engine to a series of cables and pullies running all over the building, the factory’s engineers would move the power from the engine to various machines required to perform the work at the factory, such as metal stamping tools, cutting saws, or other mechanisms. The factory layout in the steam era was not much different than the pre-steam design where water power, such as from a running stream, would turn a wheel and other gears, cranks, and pullies to transfer power to machines throughout the factory. Work had to be arranged and organized in ways that adhered to the various belts and pullies around the factory.

The steam engine and its mechanisms drove the entire layout and design of the factory. If a single piece of machinery in the factory needed to operate, the entire steam engine contraption had to run as well.  Workers had to constantly oil and lubricate various components of this maze of gears, levers, belts, and pullies.

Electric power, arriving at the plant via power lines, and the electric motor, or dynamo, completely transformed this model because the power source for the machinery in the plant was distributed to precisely the location where the work was needed. Electric motors could be built for exactly the type of work needed and, with just a wire running to them for power, could be located anywhere. Unlike small steam engines, which were hopelessly inefficient, small electric motors could run very efficiently.

With just a single power line coming into the building, the factory would have the power available to run any machinery in any means necessary to accomplish the work. Plant engineers could think about designing proper workflows based on the needs of their products rather than basing workflows on the needs of the steam engine. Moreover, buildings could be constructed with lighter materials since they did not have to support the massive infrastructure of the steam engine and its driveshaft and pullies (think of modern steel-clad warehouses versus the old brick and stone factories).

Harford observes that in the old factories, the steam engine set the pace of work.  In the new electric factories, the workers set the pace.  Yet productivity did not appear immediately with the arrival of the electric motor, as plant designers did not simply tear out their old steam mechanisms and replace them with the new technology. As Harford notes, plant designers had to think about entirely new ways of organizing their factories and, moreover, had to look for workers with the skillsets needed to work more autonomously than their predecessors.

The net result, he concludes, was a 50-year lag time in the arrival of productivity gains from the new technology, which he likens to today’s experience with computers and the productivity paradox inherent therein.

Innovation Lesson – For the modern innovator, there is often a temptation to take a new technology and simply insert it into the location of an old technology, with the expectation that the amazing capabilities of the new technology will result in overall improvements in performance. Colloquially, this is sometimes referred to as “paving the cow path,” which is a metaphor suggesting that if one takes a new technology (the macadamized road surface) and applies it to an old foundation (a wandering path through a field created by plodding cows), then the results of the injection of new technology will be suboptimal since the road will still follow the old, meandering cow path (as opposed to a newer, more efficient pathway).

The example of the electric motor replacing the steam engine is an excellent reminder that new technology sometimes requires a broader rethinking of a process before that innovation can be applied properly.

A Line of Bikes in the Peloton

Summer is the time for great bike races, including the most famous bike race of all, the Tour de France. Biking is an interesting sport from the standpoint of how one must combine individual and team effort to achieve victory.  Spectators at a bike race will notice the appearance of breakaway groups of a small number of riders and a large pack of riders, the latter famously known as the peloton. In group stages of a bike race, bikers will start out together in a large group and periodically there will be small numbers of riders who try to break away from the group and take a lead over the peloton.

As one watches the race over time, there appears to be an inevitability to the peloton catching the breakaway group. This is because of the aerodynamic and group efficiency of the peloton, where cyclists can ride in a line in the slipstream of others, reducing their wind resistance and allowing them to ride with less effort than would be the case if they were on their own digging into the wind. Moreover, in the peloton, riders can take turns in the front of the pack of bikes, allowing themselves to rest in the middle or back periodically after they have done their part to keep the group moving.

In a breakaway group of just a handful of riders, one has less of a chance to rest as one is almost constantly battling the wind and terrain. Even if a breakaway group jumps out to a big lead, the peloton usually catches them towards the end of the race. One of the enjoyable aspects of watching a bike race on television is to keep an eye on the time interval between the breakaway group and the peloton and watch the gap between the two shrink as the race progresses, with the peloton usually catching the smaller group in the end.

Innovation Lesson – As innovators we often feel as though we have to operate like the breakaway riders in a bike race. We think that we will not be innovative or creative if we hang back with the pack, and must always drive forward facing the various challenging headwinds of the marketplace. While new thinking does not often occur in the middle of the pack, the innovator has to be careful to bring along teammates and not constantly face the world’s challenges alone. Like a rider in a bike race, the innovator needs teammates to help him or her along the way.

Lines of Roads through a Town

Before the advent of controlled access interstate highways, America was a land of interlaced state and local roads.  Road planners often designed their paths to go directly through towns and cities, seeking convenience for drivers going to and from those urban and semi-urban areas as well as commerce for the companies whose businesses were situated along the road. Even when road builders created bypass highways, the new routes soon became crowded with businesses that added traffic and stoplights to the route, diminishing the benefits of the original attempt to go around the urban area.

As Earl Swift describes in his study of the history of the American highways system, The Big Roads, “daytime movement on [U.S. 13 the Ocean Highway from Delaware to New Jersey] is so hobbled by traffic lights, so gluey with the sheer number of vehicles squeezed onto its lanes, so crowded by the furniture stores and gas stations and pancake houses pressing its flanks, that you measure your progress in obscenities more than miles.”

The way to solve this problem was to create a highway that would handle cars without all of the other elements that conspire to slow traffic.  The idea behind the limited access superhighway came in 1930 from the New England conservationist Benton MacKaye, also known as the founder of the famous Appalachian Trail hiking system that runs from Georgia to Maine. MacKaye was an advocate for building cities that were accessible by car but were not oriented solely around the car.

MacKaye and his colleagues built a city called Radburn in Bergen County, New Jersey with a series of “novel controls on the automobile and its everyday impact.”  Radburn leveraged “residential superblocks, at the center of which were open parks.” Roads did not reach into these superblocks, but only operated on the periphery. Houses in the superblocks faced towards the central garden space, and “both cars and streets were invisible during most of one’s day.”  Anywhere a sidewalk had to cross a road, the builders incorporated bridges or underpasses to facilitate the pedestrian traffic. Children could walk to school from their homes without having to cross a single street.

Although the vision for Radburn succumbed to the stock market crash and depression, Radburn launched a set of ideas that soon came to prominence in American suburban life, such as the cul-de-sac and winding subdivision streets.  Yet perhaps the most innovative thing to emerge from Radburn came with an interesting 180-degree flip in thinking that MacKaye performed as he thought about the impact of the Radburn town village concept. MacKaye posited that “[i]f it was possible to build a roadless town […then] why not the reverse?”  In other words, could someone design a townless road?

Recall that at the time, even many bypass roads were crowded with roadside businesses and traffic lights which stymied the flow of traffic.  MacKaye wrote an article in the New Republic titled “The Townless Highway,” in which he called for “a highway completely free of horses, carriages, pedestrians, town, grade crossings; a highway built for the motorist and kept free from every encroachment, except the filling stations and restaurants necessary for his convenience.”

Innovation Lesson – What MacKaye envisioned in 1930 was the modern, limited-access highway that is such a familiar sight to us today. He called for “properly guarded approaches to, and crossings of, the main motor highways at proper intervals” and stated that the government should maintain “possession of the surrounding right-of-way, keeping it free from haphazard commercial development and obtaining for the benefit of the motorist the pleasant views and aspects of the country.”

As Swift notes, this was “a conceptual quantum leap beyond the so-called superhighways envisioned by most of his contemporaries.” For the innovator, the lesson here is a reminder of the value of the simple flip of logic to explore an alternative. MacKaye’s thought process went from a roadless town to a townless road, and the result was a brand-new way of looking at road building.

An innovator can take a simple concept and flip it around 180 degrees, which allows one to look at the problem from a unique perspective to develop new solutions.

A Straight Line Up a Hill

It is often said that a straight line is the shortest distance between two points.  While this is case in some scenarios, that does not mean that a straight line is always the best way to go from one point to another. In the case of air travel over the globe, the most efficient flight paths are great circles, or rounded arcs, that seem to take aircraft out of the way to reach their destination.  Another example of a straight line failing to provide the best route appears in mountainous areas with the prevalence of the switchback.

When one is standing at the base of a mountain with a relatively steep incline, the most direct route to get to the summit would be a line straight up the face of the mountain directly to the top. Yet we know that this path would be extremely difficult to take, whether on foot or in a vehicle. As such, the paths around mountains take advantage of the switchback, which is a series of long, gradually-sloping paths that take 180 degree turns periodically to send the path in the other direction, all the while gently gaining in elevation until reaching the summit.

The switchback allows a person or vehicle to climb a steep mountain using pathways whose slopes are not very steep, reducing the amount of effort or power needed to climb up the mountain. Although the 180 degree turns at the end of each path can be sharp, they are nonetheless passable and result in an overall track to the summit that is efficient and safe. The switchback is also useful for those individuals descending down the mountain, where, unless one is on skis and snow, a direct line is not a safe way to get from the top to the bottom. Although the switchback adds mileage to the overall journey, the costs of the additional distance are greatly outweighed by the benefits of the safer and more gradual ascents and descents.

Innovation Lesson – When innovators face a new challenge, the tendency is often to dive right in and attack the problem with full force.  A confident innovator may believe that he or she, by working extremely hard, can come up with an amazing technological solution to a problem that is vexing an organization or company.  The innovator is seen by others as a potential hero in solving this big problem, and our tendency as innovators is to wear this hat and try our best to meet the expectations of those around.  Yet, just like a person standing at the foot of a mountain, the direct path to the top of the mountain is going to be the most difficult way to get to the summit.

An innovator may need to break the problem into smaller pieces and attack each one gradually, one pathway at a time, just like the hiker walks along each pathway of the switchback, gradually climbing the mountain a few feet at a time. Solving little problems along the way also has the benefit of gaining incremental wins, with benefits accruing from those solved problems that help the organization along while one is on the journey to solve the major problem.

The Midwest Rain Line

Travelers across the Midwestern United States observe that the climate changes gradually from the water-abundant lands around the great rivers of the Midwest (Mississippi, Missouri) towards the more arid grasslands and scrub brush of the Great Plains.  As the United States population expanded from East to West through Manifest Destiny and the Homestead Act, this lack of water should have discouraged Easterners from pulling up stakes and taking their families out West in search of a better life.

Yet the settlers came by the thousands and thousands and, according to historian Ian Frazier, this was partly due to an innovative marketing scheme hatched by various individuals that gave the impression that farming was possible in this relatively dry climate. The “public relations device” developed by “scientists, college professors, U.S. Geological Survey officials, and railroad promoters,” Frazier notes, “was the meteorological theory that ‘rain follows the plow.’”

This theory stated that human activity, in the form of plowing fields, cultivation of the soil, and even steam from railroad engines, resulted in increased rainfall.  In other words, all of the various by-products of settlement and development had a positive effect on climate to the point where it would render a dry area more prone to precipitation. Indeed, Frazier, writes, the “Santa Fe Railroad went so far as to identify the ‘rain line,’ the front edge of this advancing rainfall, which supposedly moved at a rate of about eighteen miles a year, staying just ahead of the new settlements.” The railroads also incorrectly posited that “deep cultivation of the soil conserved moisture,” which led the new farmers to break up topsoil and dig deeper furrows into their fields than was prudent.

In the end, none of these assumptions proved true, yet the railroads succeeded in profiting from the settlers by transporting them, along with supplies, to towns throughout the region.

Innovation Lesson – The rain line anecdote serves as a reminder to the innovator to avoid the causal fallacy. That is, one should not assume that there is causality between event A and event B, even if the two events seem to be happening in a related manner. This is also referred to as correlation not causation.

As an innovator, it can be tempting to think that a new technology one introduces to solve a problem, or a process change one recommends to improve a process, is the reason why that problem is solved or that process is improved shortly thereafter. Like the farmers looking up to see rain after plowing a field, the innovator should make sure to have a data collection and analysis framework in place so he or she can be very precise in analyzing an outcome to ensure the changes one recommended were causal and not merely correlated.

This requires more upfront work when developing innovation approaches, such as identifying and isolating all of the variables involved in a particular problem or process.  Indeed, as Frazier observes, “[h]omesteading the plains might not have been possible at all without the invention of barbed wire for fencing, and of a windmill which reduced its blade surface in high winds to keep from blowing apart.”  As such, the technological innovations that the farmers needed were very different from the rain line (barbed wire to keep herds in order and windmills to pump water up from aquifers), so an innovator focused solely on the rain line would have missed out on the opportunity to develop or implement these improvements.


Graham Robb, The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography from the Revolution to the First World War (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2007).


Earl Swift, The Big Roads (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), pp 108-109.

Ian Frazier, Great Plains (New York: Picador USA, 1989)

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scott_bowdenScott Bowden is an independent innovation analyst. Scott previously worked for IBM Global Services and Independent Research and Information Services Corporation. Scott has Ph.D. in Government/International Relations from Georgetown University. Follow him on Twitter @sgbowden

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