Get On Your Logjams ASAP

Ordinarily it is expedient to break a jam as soon as possible. Once the river begins to fall, the logs settle and so press more firmly together. A very slight decrease in the volume of the water will lock the timber immovably. … if the jam happens to form between high banks, sooner or later the river will back up sufficiently behind it to flow over it. Naturally, when this happens, the logs on top are lifted, floated down, and precipitated over the breast of the jam into the stream below, where they either kill the men working at the breaking, or stick upright in the river bottom as a further obstruction. The formation of a jam, then, is a signal for feverish activity, and the man who is ‘driving’ the river never breathes freely until his logs are once more racing down the current.

– Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly, July 1901

The 19th century logging industry in the United States reshaped the landscape, provided income for tens of thousands of workers, and was a significant source of economic resources in a difficult time.

In many wilderness areas loggers would cut down trees, trim their branches and roots until they could be rolled easily, and haul them to the banks of a river. When spring floods came, the logs floated downstream to the mill on the current.

Imagine a rapidly flowing river, packed with logs. Suddenly there is a change in course that shifts the flow. Perhaps the width narrows, the channel jerks in a funny direction, or a group of boulders break the surface. The logs pile up amazingly fast, slamming into each other and backing up. The front of the jam locks down under severe pressure forming a single, immovable mass.

Timber continues to pile in. The trees compress against each other with crushing strength, squeezing under the strain until they form a huge, tension-locked mass. The straining pressure is intensely dangerous. Water backs up behind them as if they were a dam and the force cements them in place.

Crews of men set to work on them with all kinds of tools, from hand-axes to dynamite. It was dangerous. Once the jam was broken a torrent of heavy logs could rain down on the workers. Many men lost their lives clearing logjams.

The Great Log Jam of 1883 in Grand Rapids Michigan reportedly involved over 150 million feet of logs and was called “One of the Most Terrific Battles in the History of American Industry.” This was not just because the heroics of the men overcame tremendous odds stacked against them by physics. Their victory averted doom for the local economy. If the logjam had gone wrong, there would have been tremendous losses including lumber valued in millions of US dollars, the impact on the mills, thousands of jobs lost and as a result people losing their homes, the banks that held their notes would have collapsed, and there would have been domino consequences on local business.

The point here is, you want to avoid getting into a logjam whenever possible. However, they are an unavoidable part of change in a complex environment. Once they happen, break them as quickly as is safely possible to reduce the costs they can incur.

When logjams occur in an organization – that is, when the flow of positive change stops – get on it as soon as you can. Otherwise the organization begins to develop processes built on top of or around the difficulty, locking it into place. Other related activities then backfire, sometimes raining down on the very people working to get the change going again.


One Response to “Get On Your Logjams ASAP”

  1. Great words pictures! This is like an “ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure.” You’re right that it’s best to jump on any hiccups early! Thanks.

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