When a bus holding 50 commuters is forced to wait for 30 seconds for a runner to catch it, the runner has saved the 15 minutes it will take to wait for the next bus, but the total cost in time is 50 people x 30 seconds, or 25 minutes. By this math, the driver is doing the world a favour by stepping on the gas and leaving the runner behind.
I was taking the Number 80 bus to work the other day when an elderly woman got on. As we were pulling away, she realized she had left her bag on a bench at the stop. She got the driver to halt and got off. She took quite a long time to make her way back, and the driver waited for her — I think she was surprised, but she appreciated it.
This driver chose not to apply the math. And I am glad he didn’t. I suspect most people on the bus felt the same way. We were mildly inconvenienced, but people are reassured when they see public examples of compassion. Yes, we still live among human beings. (Even if drivers are trained to sometimes be lenient, which I don’t think they are.)
When I advocate a data-driven approach to making decisions, I am speaking of specific scenarios, not an approach to life itself or a way to rid ourselves of experience and human wisdom.
Don’t expect me to conclude with twaddle such as “the most important things in life just can’t be measured” or “numbers aren’t everything.” (Blech!) The quantophobes among us are all too ready to embrace the half-truths in those statements and deliberately mistake them for the entire truth.
I prefer to say that there are small things, and there are big things. Don’t forget the big things while you are busy optimizing the small things. Efficiency with details may not always coincide with the greater good.