What we can learn from crowd control at Waterloo station

Waterloo station, London, in rush hour. Ever tried getting down to the Jubilee line?

Should you attempt this journey regularly, you’ll often be faced with huge crowds, corralled behind the ticket barrier, with harassed TFL staff trying to keep tempers at bay, as everyone waits for the dangerously overcrowded Tube platforms down below to clear.

Those unlucky enough not to have made it down to the crammed Jubilee line ticket hall are penned in upstairs in the main station, faced with rapidly erected signs shouting, “Crowd Control Operation in progress!”

Eventually the line clears and a small number of barriers are reopened. Impatient commuters begin to flow towards the escalators once more and service is resumed — hurrah!

But this human filtration process is tricky to get right. On occasion, you reach the platform, only to find it all but deserted. How ridiculous! From one extreme to another, you fume. Surely they could have judged this better and opened a few more barriers?

And herein lies the challenge. What we have here is a workflow and like any such system — be it manufacturing or software development — it’s easy for bottlenecks to form, resulting in inefficiencies, or sometimes even system collapse. By limiting work-in-progress at key points in a workflow — in this case, by filtering commuters upstream in the main station as well as the ticket hall — you keep the system flowing. But over-throttle and downstream deliverables are impacted — too few people are allowed onto the platform

At Trinity Mirror Digital, we use the same principles to improve how we deliver software. By understanding and mapping out our workflow and playing with work-in-progress limits, we can drive up efficiencies and avoid those darned bottlenecks.

Jenni Barker was the programme manager for our project to rebuild our websites on a new responsive framework, culminating in the release of 30 updated websites in just over 30 days — a process that required frequent attention to bottlenecks.