In my work with IT service provider business owners, when discussing how IT operations should work, I commonly use the phase “making the trains run on time”.

Last week I had the opportunity to take my first trip to Europe.  I spent time mainly in Prague and also did a side trip to Berlin.  Over the course of my week there, I had the opportunity to experience, planes, trains, subways, trams, a bus, and of course, Uber.  Growing up and living the majority of my life in the US suburbs, I am a car guy and rarely experienced mass transit.  There was a short period of my life when I was moving between work assignments and lived with my parents in the New Jersey suburbs. For a few weeks, I commuted into New York City on the commuter train.  It was 30 years ago, but the memory was not particularly pleasant.

Fast forward to last week.  I had very good, no, I think they were great, experiences with all of the transportation modes I utilized on my trip (with the exception of the very last leg of my flight home which the Philly to Pittsburgh connection was delayed an hour at the gate while they tried to find someone to tow the plane out of the gate – I wasn’t in Europe anymore).  It occurred to me during one of these experiences, while we were waiting for the train to take us from Karstejn back to Prague, how well the transit systems were run.  The train was due to arrive at our station at 1:58pm and guess what?  It arrived at…  1:58pm, it pulled out a few minutes later.  No fuss, no muss.  This was the type of experience we had with all of our transportation.  During my train ride back to Prague, I pondered, the trains here really do run on time, but why?

So, while I watched the beautiful Czech countryside go by, I daydreamed about what makes the trains run on time.  Here is what I came up with…

Leadership – the leadership of the country/transit system insists that the systems are reliable and predictable.
Culture – all of the people in the system believe it is important and strive to make it so.
Design – the basic design of the entire system is around reliability and predictability.
Maintenance – the system is extremely clean and appears well maintained.
Innovation – there appeared to be a constant influx of new technology and a slow phase out of the old.  While the newer pieces were obvious, the older parts never really felt old.
Scheduling – clearly there was a tremendous effort on not just keeping one train on time, but to keep them all on time in a huge matrix of interconnections and shared resources.
Capacity Planning – besides scheduling, there always seemed to be just enough room for all the people.  Nothing was ever empty or completely full.
Coordination – I am assuming here, but for them to achieve the amazingly accurate schedule, there must be real time resources coordinating the fine tuning of the system to adjust to issues as they arise.

Another observation was that for all the above, it never looked like anything special was happening.  Don’t get me wrong, it was clearly a well oiled machine.  It was just that there was no rush and no fuss.  A simple calm elegance in which its beauty came from the results.

Another phrase I frequently use is when defining infrastructure, when done properly, you only notice its presence by its absence.  This was clearly the case here, nobody there seemed to notice how well things run.

Full circle.  I use the trains running on time to describe how IT services should be.  The areas outlined above for the real trains also translate to managing IT infrastructure.

How do your trains run?

A related article on the graceful elegance of a well run company – World Class – You know it when you see it