Organisational Clogging – part 3/7 – Ants’ anti-clogging-systems

Today it is time to describe the high Flow Efficiency, and high Resource Efficiency as well, achieved by ants.

The term Flow Efficiency is created by us humans, so then one can think that only we know about this, right? Maybe not.

For millions of years the ants, together with innumerable other species, already know how to create high Flow Efficiency, which the evolution has secured. The ants’ nests, have tunnels designed to ensure good ventilation and at the same time providing the shortest transport routes within the subterranean colony. And everything looking as it was man-made by an architect, but the reality is that the architecture of the colony is made of the collective mind of the Giant ants [1]. Everything in the nest has been made for high Flow Efficiency.

The ants have a common goal, and that is to bring as much food home to the nest as possible. Since the ants in a nest and on their roads are innumerable, they really could have problems with Organisational Clogging. But they do not have that, since the clogging problems are actually brilliantly solved over millions of generations of ants. They have developed fantastic anti-clogging-systems for not being too many ants on the same place or avoiding collisions. Definitively, they do not have any clogging regarding their activities either, but not proved yet by science.

Ants often use few-lanes roads, due to it takes longer time to make and maintain a wide road. But, also due to the fact that they are using pheromones as aroma telling where the food is, and the more pheromones, the better food. And the wider the roads are, the weaker the pheromones get, making it impossible to tell where the best food is. So, few-lanes are important, but can of course easier be clogged.

When fire ants [2] are digging tunnels for their nest, the tunnels cannot be wide, and therefore only ants can pass each other in the tunnel. This is solved by an already built-in anti-clogging system. The ant coming out and carrying sand are pulled out backwards by other ants, and a new ant directly goes down to fill the empty space. The longer the tunnel, the more ants. But, of clogging there is nothing in sight. Not in the queues in and not in the queues out, only smoothly flowing traffic of ants.

By colour coding the ants, the scientists could see that 30% of the fire ants did 70% of the work. And they frequently changed the hardest workers, so they could get a rest now and then. The ants not working are resting outside, standing still, all to avoid clogging the tunnel.

So, by sharing the workload unequal the ants make the job faster. The scientist then programmed robots to do work under similar conditions and found that unequal load did the work 35% faster, then if the robots split the workload equal. This means that the ants not only understand that clogging gives Flow Efficiency waste, they also understand our Project Administration Waste, see this blog post; the Resource Efficiency waste we get regarding information about what is on-going, hand-overs, meetings, discussions, etc. when having unnecessary many people to solve a task.

Army ants [3] also has an anti-clogging-system and use a three-lane system, even though the road is very wide, due to earlier reasons discussed above. Here the middle road is for bringing food home and the outer lanes for leaving the nest to get more food. Remember that the pheromones have the strongest aroma in the middle where the food is coming, which is the track the empty-handed ants from the nest are following. This constraint is the reason why the ants do not use the outer lanes all the time.

When the empty-handed ant almost collides with the ant bringing food to the nest, the empty-handed ant turns about 50% of the times to the right, and 50% of the times to the left. Ants many times bring food many times their own weight, which make it heavy to change direction, so the empty-handed ants therefore make all the manoeuvres.

Another ant [4] with an anti-clogging-system, uses only two lanes when three lanes are the maximum ones possible. To avoid colliding and clogging, some of the ants are working like traffic dividers, ants are placed with four ant’s length between, in the middle lane, barely moving. The outer lanes are used for incoming and outcoming lanes from the nest.

So, by handling the middle lane like this, the ants once again avoid Resource Efficiency and Flow Efficiency waste.

That was all about the fascinating anti-clogging systems made by ants, needed to achieve high Resource and Flow Efficiency, in order to get most possible food to the nest. Tomorrow it is time for looking into Lean Production and how they deal with Organisational Clogging. C u then.



[1] Giant Ant Colony. Link copied 2018-10-22.

[2] Aguilar, J, et al. Science  17 Aug 2018: Vol. 361, Issue 6403, pp. 672-677
DOI: 10.1126/science.aan3891
Link copied 2018-10-21

[3] Army ants. Link copied 2018-10-22.

[4] Link to film unfortunately lost.