I just returned from a couple weeks of R&R in Italy, and it looks like I have quite a bit of reading to do to catch up on. Last year while visiting Argentina and Chile I gave you some quick thoughts on flow and just in time based on observations from the trip. This recent trip to Italy had a similar effect, and I’ll share some thoughts today and in future blogs.
When most Americans visit Europe, and especially Italy, one of their first observations is the traffic. Cars and mopeds everywhere, often traveling at high speed, without much rhyme or reason. In the U.S. and Canada we are accustomed to highly-regimented traffic… signal lights everywhere, speed bumps, orderly parking, and spacious roadways. Driving becomes fairly easy… and can even be done while talking on a cell phone and/or applying makeup.
The rest of the world, especially Europe, and most especially Italy, is a little different. First off, the cars are tiny… which is almost a requirement to navigate narrow roads built centuries before cars even existed and to keep the owner from going broke with US $5.50/gallon gas. Smart Cars by DaimlerChrysler are everywhere, and have a real advantage in that their length is equal to the width of most cars… so they can nose into a parallel parking spot. Not to be out-done, most other car-makers have created their own tiny cars… from Fiat to Renault to Citroen, to series that are not available in the U.S. such as the Mercedes A-series that is very popular as a rental car. There isn’t anything quite like looking in the rear-view mirror to see some strange Fiat that looks remarkably like a squashed bug flying up on your rear end. And the fact that I saw only three Toyotas and one Lexus over the course of two weeks is the subject for a future blog.
Highway signs have been standardized throughout the EU, and at first it is a little odd to see the word “Stop” at the few intersections where there’s actually a sign (more on that later). This commonality was a little surprising, considering that no two toilets in Italy look or function alike.
Technically there are upper speed limits on roads and the Autostrade superhighways, but they are not enforced. Instead the minimum limits are enforced, often with high-end laser “radar” technology. I was driving my 1.8 liter baby Benz rental as fast as she’d go at around 100mph (mostly because I don’t often get that opportunity in the U.S., but the expression on my mother-inlaw’s face when she finally converted 160kph was priceless!), and I still kept out of the left lane out of a fear of being blown over by a large Beemer or strange Citroen or the occassional crotch rocket.
There are very few traffic signals in Italy. The town of Naples, with a million people, has about three (and I’m being serious). Signage is basically ignored. Miniature cars, and the rare larger sedan or SUV, rush all over the place intermingling with Vespas, buses and trucks. Sorrento, Rome, Florence… all roughly the same. This seems like pure mayhem and insanity to visitors from the U.S. with our highly disciplined traffic control… until you start to realize something:
Traffic flows continuously, everywhere.
So with our “highly disciplined system” we have slugs (batches…) of traffic starting then stopping at the next traffic control, while in Italy it may move a little slower… but it is always moving. Very rarely did I come to a full stop. The only hindrances was due to no enforcement of parking regulations… people would come to a stop at the side of the road (well within the lane of traffic) to read a political poster plastered on the side of the wall or to grab a quick panini. Those of us in the lean manufacturing would should immediately recognize the consequence of continual versus batch flow… steadier and higher output.
It takes a little getting used to, especially the mopeds darting all over the place in the tight confines of streets designed a couple millenia ago, but you soon become much more in tune with other drivers and the driving environment. And you realize that you can get places just a little quicker… even if it is a bit more nerve-wracking at first.
Ahh… but it can’t be as safe, right? Wrong. Statistics show that Italy has a motor vehicle accident rate that is about 30% better than the United States.
It turns out that I’m not the only person to realize the improved flow characteristics of “undisciplined” traffic control. It is actually becoming a hot topic among traffic designers as this Salon article points out. A couple points from the article:
In fact, the chaos associated with traffic in developing countries is becoming all the rage among a new wave of traffic engineers in mainland Europe and, more recently, in the United Kingdom. It’s called “second generation” traffic calming, a combination of traffic engineering and urban design that also draws heavily on the fields of behavioral psychology and — of all subjects — evolutionary biology. Rejecting the idea of separating people from vehicular traffic, it’s a concept that privileges multiplicity over homogeneity, disorder over order, and intrigue over certainty.
“One of the characteristics of a shared environment is that it appears chaotic, it appears very complex, and it demands a strong level of having your wits about you,” says U.K. traffic and urban design consultant Ben Hamilton-Baillie, speaking from his home in Bristol. “The history of traffic engineering is the effort to rationalize what appeared to be chaos,” he says. “Today, we have a better understanding that chaos can be productive.”
But the implications, especially in the United States, are nothing less than radical. Reversing decades of conventional wisdom on traffic engineering, Hamilton-Baillie argues that the key to improving both safety and vehicular capacity is to remove traffic lights and other controls, such as stop signs and the white and yellow lines dividing streets into lanes.
Without any clear right-of-way, he says, motorists are forced to slow down to safer speeds, make eye contact with pedestrians, cyclists and other drivers, and decide among themselves when it is safe to proceed. “The more you post the evidence of legislative control, such as traffic signs, the less the driver is trying to use his or her own senses,” says Hamilton-Baillie, noting he has a habit of walking randomly across roads — much to his wife’s consternation.
When it comes to reconfiguring streets as community spaces, ground zero is once again Holland and Denmark, where planners are removing traffic lights in some towns and cities, as well as white divider lines, sidewalks and speed limits. Research has shown that fatality rates at busy intersections, where two or three people were being killed every year, dropped to zero when controls and boundaries were taken away.
Evidence from countries and cities that have introduced a design speed of 30 kilometers per hour (about 18.5 mph) — as many of the European Union nations are doing — shows that slower speeds improve traffic flow and reduce congestion. “This surprises many people, although mathematically it’s not surprising,” Hamilton-Baillie says. “The reason for this is that your speed of journey, the ability of traffic to move smoothly through the built environment, depends on performance of your intersections, not on your speed of flow between intersections.”
And intersections, he says, work much more efficiently at lower speeds. “At 30 miles per hour, you frequently need control systems like traffic signals, which themselves mean that the intersection is not in use for significant periods of time. Whereas at slower speeds vehicles can move much more closely together and drivers can use eye contact to engage and make decisions. So you get much higher capacity.”
Combining slower speeds with a reduction in traffic controls, in other words, may have more than public safety and shared-space benefits. It also appears to profit the driver. This is the logic behind the modern roundabout, a redesigned version of the classic traffic circle that is replacing signalized intersections in the United Kingdom and is gaining acceptance among transportation officials in the United States.
Think about this concept in terms of your manufacturing operation. If you read this blog you probably have a fairly good understanding of the fundamentals of lean manufacturing, and realize that continuous one piece flow is far better than batch processing. But how about leveraging the “power of chaos”? Have you taken standardized work to such a level that it is constraining the on-the-fly decision-making by highly intelligent and trained operators?
Are you putting speed bumps in the middle of your flow?