Lean Lessons from Driving on the Left Side of the Road

My professional career has afforded me the opportunity to travel across the world.  I’ve explored the Amazon rainforest, I’ve forgotten all about my lack of clothes inside a Finnish sauna since I could barely breathe, and I’ve traversed across many parts of the UK and Asia.

But, up until a week ago there’s one thing I had never done while abroad… drive on the left side of the road. That had to change because my wife and I needed to get from Belfast to the town of Limavady in Northern Ireland, where we shot an incredible Gemba Academy Live episode with the good folks at Seating Matters. More to come on that in another article.

In preparation for the big day I read some articles on what to expect, including how to deal with the many roundabouts we’d see (stay to the left!).  I’d also done my best to visualize what it would be like to drive on the left side of the road while sitting in the right side of the car.

It’s Go Time

After a few days of taxis and tour busing around Dublin and Belfast, the big day arrived.  In other words, the time for research and thinking was over.  It was Go Time.

We arrived at the rental car place and were quickly told that the only cars available had manual transmissions. So, not only was I going to drive from the right side of the car and on the left side of the road… I was now going to have to shift gears with my left hand!  I hadn’t expected this so I pleaded with the man to please find a car with an automatic transmission.  Luckily, after a few minutes of “research” the good man suddenly discovered they had a little Ford Focus with an automatic transmission.  Oh, was I relieved!

The man then handed me a yellow bracelet that said “drive on the left.”  At first I chuckled since I thought he was joking. He didn’t laugh. He told me, with his thick Irish accent, to put the bracelet on my left wrist. I obliged and put it on. He then told us how to find our way to the main highway with particularly strong emphasis on how important it was to stay to the immediate left as soon as I turned out of the parking lot.

Stay to the Left!

We loaded our bags into the trunk and I found my way to the right side of the car.  I pulled up my GPS program on my phone and got all buckled in. I then closed my eyes, said a little prayer, and started the car.  At that point I began the quiet chant I’d go on to say before, during, and even after every driving episode – stay to the left, stay to the left, stay to the left.

The rental car agent was right…pulling out of the parking lot was particularly difficult.  Forcing myself to go to the left side of the road was one of the hardest things I’ve ever made myself do.  You see, I’ve been driving on the right side of the road for 29 years. Driving on the right side of the road is what I know. I don’t have to think about it. Put another way, my “drive on the right side of the road” neural pathways are so developed I’m what you’d call unconsciously competent.

On this particular morning in downtown Belfast, I was immediately thrust into the world of conscious incompetence the second I put that car into drive. My heart was racing, my hands were “10 after 10” on the wheel, and I was extremely focused on staying alive.  I mean it. I didn’t want to crash and die.

After a few minutes we managed to escape the craziness of downtown Belfast and found our way to the main highway where, once again, I stayed to the left.  Unaware of what the speed limit was I decided to find my way to the right lane of the two-lane highway so the good folks trying to get to work could zoom around me.  After a few minutes my wife explained, “Honey, I think a man just told me that we’re supposed to be in the left lane if we’re going slow.”  Sure enough, she was right!  Slow traffic is supposed to stay to the left instead of the right!  Who knew?  Not me!

Still Alive

Just over an hour later, we arrived in Limavady.  We were still alive!  Now, I won’t say it was an easy drive free from anxiety. My wife kept yelling at me to stay more towards the center and I yelled back, “I can’t or we’re going to die!” But, alas, we made it.

After checking into the hotel and calming my nerves, I needed to meet with the Seating Matters folks to prepare for the shoot the following day. My wife was going to meet some friends we knew in the area for a tour so I was on my own to drive to the factory, which was only 10 minutes away.

A weird thing happened on that second drive.  I was no longer a nervous wreck. While I continued to silently chant “stay to the left, stay to the left” it wasn’t as difficult.

Reflection Time

A few days later it was time to drive back to Belfast and I can say, for sure, it was much more enjoyable.  I was far more confident in what I was doing and while there were still a few anxious moments…especially in downtown Belfast due to their, how should I say, “interesting” intersections, we made it back to the rental car place safe and sound.

Since that final drive back to Belfast was more relaxing I was able to reflect on the whole driving experience.  I kept thinking about Destin and his famous backwards bike experiment.  I then realized I had just done a similar exercise as I developed brand new “drive on the left side of the road” neural pathways.

Lean Lessons

I also likened the experience to my experience with Toyota Kata.  Allow me to explain.

First, even though I had never driven on the left side of the road, or from the right side of a car, I still had lots of experience driving a car. So, while it was very different, it wasn’t totally foreign.  That’s how I liken the practicing of Toyota Kata, or the Scientific Thinking process in general.  Most lean thinkers have done similar activities but the specificity of the Improvement and Coaching Kata are different and definitely take some getting used to.  I’ve even heard experienced lean thinkers comment that it just feels weird initially… but, once they’re into the routine, it becomes as natural as breathing.

Second, that little yellow “drive on the left” bracelet was extremely helpful.  I could feel it on my skin and I could also see it.  This served as a constant reminder of what to do – stay to the left!  I liken this to the physical “five question” card we use during TK coaching sessions.  When first learning we’re encouraged to read from the card.  Hand held cards are also used when practicing TWI Job Instruction, Job Relations, and Job Methods.

And, third, the best way to learn anything is to practice deliberately.  Yes, the research I did before my trip definitely helped and I’m glad I did it.  But the real learning occurred once I actually sat behind the wheel of that car. And so it is with Toyota Kata, or any aspect of life for that matter. We have to step out of our comfort zone in order to really learn. Playing it safe, and never venturing outside our threshold of knowledge, is the surest way to a life of mediocrity.

In fact, my wife and I are already talking about our next trip abroad and how we’ll be far more likely to rent a car instead of playing it safe with taxis and tour buses!

Have you ever driven on the “other” side of the road?  If so, what was your experience like?

7 Comments

  1. Edythe Thompson

    September 14, 2018 - 6:05 pm

    Hi Ron, I really enjoyed reading of your experience driving on the left. I lived in St. Croix for several years. We drove on the left with American cars. This means that passengers are let out in the street and the “rules” for yielding right-of-way are different because you can’t really see.
    Parking lots and at night were the most risky because my visual curs were missing. Having a yellow wrist band is a good idea. Glad you were safe!

    • Ron Pereira

      September 18, 2018 - 4:26 pm

      Whoa! Driving on the left with American steering wheel configuration would be super hard! At least in Europe it’s all foreign and you just have to fight through it. Having a familiar steering wheel but being forced to drive on the left hurts my brain thinking about it!

  2. Dave Harry

    September 14, 2018 - 11:09 pm

    Thanks Ron, as always well done, cogent and thought provoking.
    Dave
    The Process Whisperer®

    • Ron Pereira

      September 18, 2018 - 4:24 pm

      Thanks, Dave. Appreciate the kind words.

  3. Dwayne Butcher

    September 16, 2018 - 11:39 am

    Ron – It sounds like you just submitted a case study for a future TWI Summit and/or Kata Summit case study! Great stuff. Thanks for sharing.

    • Ron Pereira

      September 17, 2018 - 9:52 am

      Thanks, Dwayne! I’d love to share this story with a live group… just let me know how I can help!

  4. Brion

    September 29, 2018 - 2:35 pm

    I know exactly how you felt. My first driving in London was with the manual transmission. I should have pleaded with them, I didn’t think about that. It definitely created far more challenges, having to learn two new things at once. I drove around the rental car facility a couple times first, and that helped a little. Then when we hit the first roundabout, I was really confused (this was 10 years ago, those were not very common in the US yet). Having my wife there definitely helped. I would have had more trouble by myself.