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).
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.