Last year I wrote about my experience with driving in Italy.
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. 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.
Those of us in the lean manufacturing world recognize what is going on.
So with our [U.S.] "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. Those of us in the lean manufacturing would should immediately recognize the consequence of continual versus batch flow… steadier and higher output.
Yes, believe it or not, the chaos is actually safer in addition to creating better overall flow, and the concept of "shared space" is a theory of traffic management that is rapidly gaining acceptance throughout the world.
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.
Today’s Washington Post tells us of a German town with a traffic problem.
Like countless other communities, this west German town lived for years with a miserable traffic problem. Each day, thousands of cars and big trucks barreled along the two-lane main street, forcing pedestrians and cyclists to scamper for their lives. The usual remedies — from safety crossings to speed traps — did no good.
So they tried something new, which has already been proven to work in countless communities across Europe.
So the citizens of Bohmte decided to take a big risk. Since September, they’ve been tearing up the sidewalks, removing curbs and erasing street markers as part of a radical plan to abandon nearly all traffic regulations and force people to rely on common sense and courtesy instead. This contrarian approach to traffic management, known as shared space, is gaining a foothold in Europe. Towns in the Netherlands, Denmark, Britain and Belgium have tossed out their traffic lights and stop signs in a bid to reclaim their streets for everyone.
Why does this work?
The assumption is that drivers are accustomed to owning the road and rarely pay attention to speed limits or caution signs anyway. Removing traffic lights and erasing lane markers, the thinking goes, will cause drivers to get nervous and slow down. "Generally speaking, what we want is for people to be confused," said Willi Ladner, a deputy mayor in Bohmte. "When they’re confused, they’ll be more alert and drive more carefully."
We previously discussed how this concept aligns with the traditional batch versus one piece flow concepts of lean manufacturing. But there are other parallels. Perhaps you could even use it to explain why the free market trumps over-regulation. Toyota is famously known for a corporate mentality that is always worried, always searching for a better way. I definitely wouldn’t call it "confused" but it is a culture that drives every employee to be continually on the lookout for an improvement. But what about the lean concept of standard work? Although even with disciplined standard work true lean companies drive continuous improvement, when does regimented standardization become too much? When does a focus on achieving absolute consistency begin to take away from the learning power of chaos?
Many of us drive lean transformations in each organization we work with or for. We create and operate within hoshin planning structures, lean and balanced scorecard metrics, and A3 reporting discipline. But coincidentally, and independently, staff members in the last couple of organizations I’ve worked in have referred to the feel of the organization as "a chaotic furrball moving forward." When lean gathers momentum and reaches the tipping point it can be a bit tough to control, but it is accelerating in the right direction.
Chaotic furrballs are why I really enjoy going to work each day.