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Kevin Meyer

Quality Insider

Chaos Can Be Productive

Given back the right to think for ourselves, we revert to conscientious beings

Published: Wednesday, March 5, 2014 - 18:00

Rules are funny things. We like some of them because they make us feel protected, aligned, and perhaps operating on a fair playing field. We dislike them because they can protect us to the point of being smothering, align us to the point of being constraining, and fair to the point of being unfair. Regardless of perspective, there are an increasing number of them. More than 3,000 new laws and regulations each year, for starters.

I won’t get into the political side of the increasing number of rules, but what are we doing to ourselves as a society? Or individually as humans?

Years ago I visited Italy and was surprised at the traffic.

There are few traffic signals in Italy. Naples, with a million people, has about three (and I’m being serious). Signage is basically ignored. Miniature cars, and the rare larger sedan or SUV, rush all over the place intermingling with Vespas, buses, and trucks. Sorrento, Rome, Florence... all roughly the same. This seems like pure mayhem and insanity to visitors from the United States with our highly disciplined traffic control... until you start to realize something:

Traffic flows continuously, everywhere.

Ah, but it can’t be as safe, right? Wrong. Statistics show that Italy has a motor-vehicle accident rate that is about 30-percent better than the United States.

There’s actually some science behind the chaos, and some towns are exploiting the science as this Salon article points out.

“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,” writes Linda Baker. “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.”

Baker’s article contineus. “‘One of the characteristics of a shared environment is that it appears chaotic, it appears very complex, and it demands a strong level of having your wits about you,’ says UK traffic and urban design consultant Ben Hamilton-Baillie. ‘The history of traffic engineering is the effort to rationalize what appeared to be chaos. Today, we have a better understanding that chaos can be productive.’”

SPIEGEL magazine published 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.

“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,” writes Matthias Schulz. “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.”

Chaos can be productive, liberty creates responsibility. A month ago I wrote about how some enlightened companies are applying this concept to their own internal rules.

[At Neflix] there is no vacation policy, and the travel and expense policy is literally five words: “Act in Netflix’s best interests.” Netflix believes high-performance people should be free to make decisions, and those decisions need to be grounded in context.

In the world of Netflix, flexibility is more important long term than efficiency. To inhibit the chaos that too much flexibility in a large organization can create, hire (and keep) only high-performance people. High-performance people make great decisions, which are better than rote rules.

Incredible effects from rule-free playgrounds

Now we may have more psychobiological understanding of why this is the case, and it comes from some interesting experiments involving New Zealand school playgrounds, reports TVNZ news. Here’s an excerpt from the report:

“Chaos may reign on Auckland’s Swanson Primary School playground with children climbing trees, riding skateboards, and playing bullrush, but surprisingly the students don’t cause bedlam, says principal Bruce McLachlan. ‘The school is actually seeing a drop in bullying, serious injuries, and vandalism, while concentration levels in class are increasing,’ McLachlan says. ‘When you look at our playground it looks chaotic. From an adult’s perspective, it looks like kids might get hurt, but they don’t.’

“Swanson School signed up to a study by Auckland University of Technology and Otago University just over two years ago, with the aim of encouraging active play. However, the school took the experiment a step further by abandoning the rules completely, much to the horror of some teachers at the time, says McLachlan.”

I bet there was some horror, but what are the results?

Researchers expected the children to be more active, but they were amazed by the behavioral results. According to the TVNZ news article, “Mudslides, skateboarding, bullrush, and tree climbing kept the children so occupied that the school no longer needed a timeout area or as many teachers on patrol. Instead of a playground, children used their imagination to play in a ‘loose parts pit’ that contained junk such as wood, tires, and an old fire hose. The kids were motivated, busy, and engaged.

“AUT professor of public health Grant Schofield, who worked on the research project, urged other schools to embrace risk-taking. ‘It’s a no-brainer,’ he says. ‘As far as implementation, it’s a zero-cost game in most cases. All you are doing is abandoning rules.’”

All you are doing is abandoning rules. If only it was that easy.

Society’s obsession with protecting children is causing the benefits of risk-taking to be ignored, says Schofield. Some things can’t be taught, noted the TVNZ news report:

“Children develop the frontal lobe of their brain when taking risks, meaning they work out consequences. ‘You can’t teach them that,’ says Schofield. ‘They have to learn risk on their own terms. It doesn’t develop by watching TV; they have to get out there.’”

Risk creates engagement, and engagement creates understanding, whether it’s of the environment, consequences of actions, or simply new concepts. Understanding creates high-performance decision making, whether it’s in the chaos of traffic, the corporate offices of Netflix, or on the playground.

So what about all those rules? In the quest for structure, equality, and serenity, what are we doing to ourselves? And to the next generation? Instead, how can we create and leverage chaos and risk to improve engagement?

First published Feb. 23, 2014, on Evolving Excellence.


About The Author

Kevin Meyer’s picture

Kevin Meyer

Kevin Meyer has more than 25 years of executive leadership experience, primarily in the medical device industry, and has been active in lean manufacturing for more than 20 years serving as director and manager in operations and advanced engineering, and as CEO of a medical device manufacturing company. He consults and speaks at lean events; operates the online knowledgebase, Lean CEO, and the lean training portal, Lean Presentations; and is a partner in GembaAcademy.com, which provides lean training to more than 5,000 companies. Meyer is co-author of Evolving Excellence–Thoughts on Lean Enterprise Leadership (iUniverse Inc., 2007) and writes weekly on a blog of the same name.


Interesting Column

I read recently the federal code of laws is 100,000 and something pages long and growing.