Sometimes we just can’t help but be ahead of our time. Almost six months ago I told you about my experience driving in Italian traffic. The lack of signs and signals created a "chaos" that in many ways approximated the continuous flow of the lean world, with the same counterintuitive result. Although single cars appeared to move slower, the fact that they continually moved without signals creating effective batches of traffic meant that the overall flow of traffic actually moved faster.
There are very few traffic signals in Italy. Miniature cars rush all over the place intermingling with Vespas, buses and trucks. 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. Those of us in the lean manufacturing would should immediately recognize the consequence of continuous versus batch flow… steadier and higher output.
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.
A couple days ago (long after we told you about this opportunity…) Der Spiegel had a story on how seven European cities are participating in an experiment to remove all traffic signs. Not just signs, but parking meters, lights, sidewalks, and even the painted lines on streets. To quote a few lines from the article:
Drivers [in regulated areas with many signals] find themselves enclosed by a corset of prescriptions, so that they develop a kind of tunnel vision: They’re constantly in search of their own advantage, and their good manners go out the window.
The new traffic model’s advocates believe the only way out of this vicious circle is to give drivers more liberty and encourage them to take responsibility for themselves. They demand streets like those during the Middle Ages, when horse-drawn chariots, handcarts and people scurried about in a completely unregulated fashion. The new model’s proponents envision today’s drivers and pedestrians blending into a colorful and peaceful traffic stream.
It may sound like chaos, but it’s only the lesson drawn from one of the insights of traffic psychology: Drivers will force the accelerator down ruthlessly only in situations where everything has been fully regulated. Where the situation is unclear, they’re forced to drive more carefully and cautiously.
"More than half of our signs have already been scrapped," says Drachten traffic planner Koop Kerkstra. Now traffic is regulated by only two rules: "Yield to the right" and "Get in someone’s way and you’ll be towed." Strange as it may seem, the number of accidents has declined dramatically. Experts from Argentina and the United States have visited Drachten. Even London has expressed an interest in this new example of automobile anarchy.
Those of us in the lean world immediately recognize the power of continuous flow at work. What has been really interesting is how others, in non-traffic and non-manufacturing fields, have also picked up on potential opportunities from this phenomenom.
Jeff Nolan at Venture Chronicles wonders if it is possible to increase computer and network security through "increased danger." In effect, vigilance increases if the potential danger is increased. One respondent to his post calls it "security through increased accountability." Mike at TechDirt has a similar computer viewpoint.
A Cato Institute blog notes the following statement in the original article:
"The many rules strip us of the most important thing: the ability to be considerate. We’re losing our capacity for socially responsible behavior," says Dutch traffic guru Hans Monderman, one of the project’s co-founders. "The greater the number of prescriptions, the more people’s sense of personal responsibility dwindles."
And then makes a nice libertarian-oriented argument against excessive (or practically any) regulation… which I happen to agree with. For the most (but not all) part, regulations are like squeezing a balloon. Constrain it in one place and it will bulge out someplace else… usually where you least expect it.
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