Finding New Solutions to Old Problems
UPS is the world’s largest package delivery service. Their Red Thread is to figure out how to get something from point A to point B as quickly as possible. How do they do it? Surprisingly, it’s not about an algorithm that solves for the shortest distance; instead, it comes down to a simple solution: they don’t turn left.
What UPS realized is that solving their problem isn’t just about figuring out the shortest distance to the destination, it’s about which decisions actually impact the wait time for a package. Turning left increases the wait for the lane to clear, and also increases the risk of an accident because you’re moving through oncoming traffic.
Rather than having their Red Thread say that they do the same thing the same way every time, UPS kept their goal in mind, which allowed them to find a new solution to an old problem.
Sometimes, people worry that a Red Thread could become binding or constricting, but I see it as a way to wrap yourself around an old problem in a new way. How? Let’s take a look at the Red Thread of Brown.
Most of us know UPS, United Parcel Service. Most of us know it because we get packages from them all the time. They are, in fact, the world’s largest package delivery service. So, their job, their Red Thread, is to get something from here to there as fast, efficiently as possible. Now, how do they do that? Well, you would rightly assume that they figure out what’s the best route. How do I, what’s the shortest distance from here to there?
But what was surprising for me to discover was that in finding the shortest route, there’s something very unique about UPS and their drivers. What’s that? They don’t turn left, or at least, they don’t turn left very often. That may sound strange to you, you might say, “Well, turning left, that’s a great way to get through a maze, but not necessarily the fastest and best way to get a package from here to there,” but UPS found out, instead, that in fact it was.
So, let’s stop and think about that for a minute: UPS’s main goal is to get something from here to there as fast as possible. That’s the problem they solve, but they believe, to their core, that the best way to do that, the most efficient way to do that, is to make sure that it’s efficient in every way. In other words, it’s not just fast, it’s not just the shortest route, but that they’re also looking at things like, how do we minimize wait times? How do we minimize the likelihood that a driver might get in an accident?
What happens when they take that broader look, is that instead of just saying let’s look at what, on paper, is the shortest distance, they start to look at all sorts of other things. So, their Red Thread helps them instead challenge some of the assumptions about what’s the best way to do that. And when it came to taking left turns, if you think about it, you have the same experience that they started to notice, and yes, their software started to notice, but if you drive in a country where we drive mostly on the right side of the road, a left-hand turn means that you have to do a couple things. One, it usually means you have to wait. You’re waiting for oncoming traffic to pass. So, that wait is a wait time that UPS doesn’t want. The second thing is that by crossing oncoming traffic, you dramatically increase the chances that you are going to have an accident, which not only is not a good thing, but it also, obviously, adds to time, if an accident actually happens.
So, this is what UPS saw, and rather than have their Red Thread say “this is how we do things every time,” by understanding (and you can do this too), by understanding one of the component parts of why you do something. It’s not only what you do, but why you do it and how. It allows you to remix things and see things in a different way. It in fact allows you to wrap your Red Thread around an old problem in a new way. Or, take a new solution and apply it in a new way entirely.
So, that’s the thing that I want you to take away today, is that the Red Thread isn’t about saying this is what you do all the time, in every way ever, it’s about saying why do I want to do this? How do I typically do this? What problem does that solve? And when the results aren’t what you’re looking for, or there’s a gap between where you wanna be and where you currently are, look at each of those components and say, is there a different way that I can put them together? Is there a different way that I can wrap this around the problem I wanna solve? So, that’s the Red Thread of Brown. How are you going to use the Red Thread in a new way?