Tips for Lean Managers

Andon Systems in a Land Where Red Means Go

By Jon Miller Updated on May 23rd, 2017

My daily walk to the office is filled with quiet danger. Much of Shanghai is a scene of too many people too eager to get to wherever they think they must go on streets that are too narrow. I have been to Shanghai perhaps 10 times. During every single visit I witness at least one pedestrian, motorcyclist or bicycle being hit by a car. These are typically low-speed affairs, but even at 40 km/h the meeting of metal, flesh and asphalt is not pretty.

Today an SUV feigned a legal right turn on red, only to crawl slowly across the empty pedestrian crosswalk, slinking another right turn on red around the next corner. Why this SUV didn’t simply fly through the red light and empty intersection, I don’t know. I shall dub this maneuver “white striped crawling tiger.”

There are many parts of the world where “crazy traffic” is the easy excuse for such behavior. Surely they will grow out of it, visitors may think. But the reasons for crazy traffic may lie within deep cultural norms and assumptions. For example red is traditionally the color of life, health and happiness in China. Perhaps people are happy to see a red light and feel free to drive through it. I am only half joking.

Observing this behavior, the simple rule seems to be “if the intersection is clear, go”. Never mind the color of the lamp. We could even say this is very lean. Simple rules are resulting in intelligent, adaptive behaviors. Decision making is pushed the the front lines. There is flow. It does not require multiple, complex sets of rules resulting in bizarre and dangerous behaviors, including the invention of technologies to break rules, and other technologies to catch people who break the rules. I am not advocating ignoring red lights in all situations, but there is a certain edgy elegance that must be seen to be believed. It’s like there is an invisible traffic circle, only it’s not a circle but lines that intersect harmlessly (mostly).

Can you spot a correlation between the color of the traffic lamp and the direction of traffic in these photos?





After a week of walking a dozen or so of these blocks daily I wondered, “Can the andon system function within a culture where the color of traffic lights is treated as a suggestion at best?” Well, of course it can as many excellent examples of lean companies in this country demonstrate. But these are the exception and not the rule, and they have succeeded at andon systems and at building a strong culture only by overcoming a number of challenges which may include the following:

  • People don’t have faith that the rules are rational.
  • People think they know a better way and don’t need to follow the standard.
  • People see there are no consequences when others don’t follow the standard.
  • People learn from their predecessors what is acceptable.
  • People are selfish and fail to see the long-term harm to the whole when everyone pursues their own interest and breaks the rules… but let’s leave the evils of Wall Street to another day.

I have seen more decorative andon lamps than I care to mention. It’s a shame that decorative andons are using electrical power. It’s a shame that they erode faith in the quality culture. It is a shame that they are too big and ugly to be recycled as holiday decorations.

Why is it so important to set and follow the simplest of rules? Repeated actions become behaviors. Behaviors expressed across communities become cultures. Over time cultures can determine the well-being of large numbers of people within an environment. The appreciation of rules requires the abandonment of selfishness; think of the whole, of society, the team, everyone in traffic, the long-term. I believe the city government of Shanghai is aware of this problem and is taking action, as evidenced by the “peace and calm” arm-banded community volunteers who stop traffic to let people across the busiest of intersections, regardless of the color of the lamp, whenever the press of humanity exceeds the carrying capacity of the asphalt.

Then there is also that perverse crosswalk on a major road, without traffic light or volunteer, located right in front of the train station, a large department store, a popular park, and a famous Buddhist temple. It’s one block before our office. I can read the name of our building standing on the first white stripe. Mere hundreds of paces from my destination, once again it’s time for the daily Frogger challenge.

Who remembers Frogger?


..and success!

The 1981 version seemed harder but was also much less life-threatening than the full-contact version.

  1. Joseph

    July 2, 2010 - 12:48 pm

    With 1,320,000,999 people waiting behind every person, motorbike and car to get through the lights or cross the road using the Zebra Crossing. I am not surprised that they do not wait for the correct colour of light.
    Because of the policy of allowing families to only have ONE child there is now a complete generation of people that have no Aunties or Uncles. So they probably feel that if they get hurt there will be no body to worry about them. I care about them but being 8000 miles away they would not know that. Please tell them of my concern. Once you have passed this message on to all 1,320,000,000 they will all take more care. Knowing that I will be upset if they get hurt.
    In the Lean community we are often charged with following Japan. If the Chinese follow the Americans in the Highway Code there will be no people breaking the rules. With legal claims in America running into the millions of $ for breaking a finger nail. They would soon make sure that they do not hurt other people. America must lead the world in safe driving ?
    Now back to LEAN. 5S visual controls only work if they are policed to prevent process decay. Many times gains in Lean are allowed to slip because the people who should ensure that the standards are kept up do not care. There should be a Naughty Step in every factory where these people are made to sit. If they act like children then they should be punished like children.
    In England we have a saying. If you want to stop the traffic then put a police man on point duty. Directing the traffic with hand signals. This is a cert. to stop accidents as it also stops all MOVEMENT of vehicles and creates long cues of cars in all directions. Come to think of it our government is on a cost cutting exercise so we will soon have some English police men that China can borrow. Just feed and water them twice a day and they will stop the traffic in China for ever.
    Have you spent much time on the BEACH yet. Catching a few waves. When crossing the roads try a few surfing techniques. Join the “Dawn Patrol” and do a “Catchback” this may not get you safely across the road but it will impress the hell out of the on lookers as you fly through the air. Please don’t tell me that you have forgotten your Surf board.

  2. Dragan Bosnjak

    July 2, 2010 - 3:06 pm

    You obviously haven’t been recently (and not also…) in the MiddleEast countries: it’s Frogger^3 šŸ˜‰

  3. Chuck Jaeger

    July 3, 2010 - 5:36 pm

    The concept of a traffic circle or roundabout was briefly mentioned. “Statistically, roundabouts are safer for drivers and pedestrians than both traffic circles and traditional intersections.” Sometimes it doesn’t take a cop, electrically powered signal system, or red-light cameras to change the results. Improve the process by changing the behaviors needed to successfully navigate the system.

  4. mike

    August 2, 2010 - 4:12 pm

    I do prefer roundabouts, well traffic roundabouts. I dont think roundabouts are a good alternative to Andon.

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