Of Turtles and Trains

turtle-182121_640Japan has a turtle problem. Specifically, the West Japan Railway Company has a problem with turtles in the Nara Prefecture. Here, the track runs close to the ocean and turtles periodically fall between the rails at switch points as they try to reach the water. They become trapped and are killed when the track switch is thrown to reroute trains onto a different section of track. This is obviously bad for the turtle, but it’s bad for the railway too. When the switch can’t close properly, it causes delays that cost the company and its customers time and money.

Working with the Suma Aqualife Aquarium in Kobe, the railway recently installed five u-shaped concrete tunnels beneath the tracks around the most heavily trafficked sections. These artificial ditches allow turtles to pass safely under the rails, and the company can operate on schedule without fear of disruption. Railway workers collect any strays who miss the tunnels and hand them off to the aquarium.

Don’t you find that the most ingenious solutions typically wind up being rather simple? These concrete tunnels cost very little to manufacture, but result in significant savings for the company and conservation of wildlife. And all it took was a little collaboration and creative thinking.

So many times I think we see customers like these turtles. They’re slow, easily confused, and often get in our way; causing us to waste time and money. It’s not intentional, they’re just trying to get from point A to point B. Sometimes they just fall victim to the fast-moving train of our business processes. We sigh and write off the cost of dealing with it as a necessary part of doing business.

Occasionally though, we get the right people together and come up with a simple, yet magical solution. We can prevent the customer from getting trapped AND save ourselves some time and money by working together and thinking outside the box. Win-wins like this are rare, but they don’t have to be. The Harvard Business Review suggests we take three steps to encourage new ways of thinking.

  1. Question the status quo. Don’t accept things as the way they are. Ask “Why?” “How could we…?” What if…?” Make challenging the way we do ______ today part of everyday conversation.
  2. Take a wider perspective. Expand your view of the problem to draw in related issues and other potential stakeholders. Don’t assume others aren’t connected or don’t have a stake in the outcome.
  3. Draw a picture as a team. Pull people together and capture all ideas on a white-board. Visualization helps keep everyone on the same page, yet allows for each individual to process the problem in their own distinctive way.

The railway tunnels were just installed in November, but already the West Japan Railway team has counted multiple turtles taking advantage of the solution. Each one represents a service interruption avoided and a turtle life saved. However, the full impact of the plan won’t be felt until later this year. The largest migration of turtles takes place between May and September.