Efficiency has been a buzzword in business since 1913, when Henry Ford started up the very first industrialized assembly line. In 1937, McDonalds brought efficiency into the food service by offering the same method and adding a very limited menu. And for a long time we’ve been talking about ‘lean’ and ‘just in time’ operations to describe progress in efficiency. However, very quietly and from some unexpected sources, a new type of efficiency has been blossoming.

I’m talking about the highly efficient use of randomness to make processes easier and quicker. This may sound counter productive but everyone from Amazon to Southwest Airlines uses it. Amazon warehouse storage is famously random, and South West refuses to assign seats. However, both systems are highly efficient.  But why is this?

If you’re a mathematician or physicist you might argue what they’re doing isn’t random at all. It’s simply passing the decision making process down the line to employees and customers. And this is partly true. Let’s take a look.

How Amazon embraced the casual rather than the causal

In the Amazon example, as I’m sure you’ve seen, items in the warehouse are placed wherever there is space. The new product is placed, the aisle and box number saved and when the item is ordered the location is shown. They don’t follow a code as books in a library do and for good reason – they don’t need to.  Library books are in order of subject, then author name and then publication date. This makes using them academically more efficient. The point of interest is the subject, not the name.

At Amazon, it doesn’t matter one iota if you arrange items by subject. After all, if you buy a Dyson vacuum cleaner today, you’re hardly likely to be buying a Hoover at the same time. So there’s no advantage to grouping. The other efficiency drive is allowing the stocker on the ground to make their own shelving decision in real time. If they need to place something large, they will visually locate a free space for it. There’s no ‘pattern or predictably’ and this is more efficient because it means no one (or program) is managing this pattern.

Can you imagine the alternative – if products commonly ordered together were located in proximity? With the millions of orders processed by Amazon every single day, this room-program approach to sorting would always be shape changing.

Southwest Airline know you have a choice – to sit anywhere

We’ve all been there, shuffling our feet to board the plane – thinking of five ways, right off the top of our heads, how this could be made more efficient. However, airlines are seemingly insusceptible to initiate change – except when it comes to baggage fees.

This thought process is so common, they did a Myth Busters episode on it, finally establishing, what we all suspected - window passengers should board first. However, nothing happened. The airlines didn’t adopt it.

Like me, you might have recognised the snag. If window seat passengers boarded first – that would mean a lot of unaccompanied children – because kids love those seats. Also what about people travelling in twos and threes? Basically, it gets very complicated. And if there’s one group who hates delays even more than the passengers, it’s the airlines. Delays, missed windows and extra time on the tarmac costs airlines a fortune.

In this case, Southwest Airlines took a leaf out of the European budget airlines’ rulebooks and worked out the power of pushing the decision-making envelope forward. Most passengers-created boarding delays are the product of people needing to find a place for their bags, struggling to stow and then return to their seats. It causes cues and bottlenecks. Also, passengers are selfish. They don’t care if they’re holding you up. Me first.

However, if you make passengers be efficient to secure their preferred seat, natural behaviors modification occurs. Namely, passengers pack a lighter bag, check luggage, and sit down more quickly for fear of mission out.

So these two examples of randomness in efficiency highlight something important. Randomness is also a form of organizing. Human’s are almost incapable of being perfectly random – which is why we toss a coin. So by instilling random processes into service design and work processes, we are simply stimulating inmate human level organization behaviors – and these are never random.