Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Elegant Solutions

Simplicity is a key element of writing and graphic design. But it also solves traffic jams and eliminates bureaucratic hierarchies. Amazing!

In Pursuit of Elegance by Matthew E. May looks at why some of the best ideas have something missing. Rather than trying to solve problems by doing things, May recommends seeing what you can do without.

Eliminate Traffic Lights
When an intersection is dangerous, traffic engineers normally add traffic lights or stop signs or cameras. But there is an alternate approach – do away with all the signs; remove the traffic lights.

Experience shows that when there is a power outage and the traffic lights aren’t functioning, traffic actually flows more smoothly. As one driver reported, “you would expect chaos, but instead the traffic flowed beautifully. There were no backups, people were careful and polite and I saw no accidents. Traffic from the side streets flowed into the main street on opportunity. Drivers would slow down and motion them out. . . . I arrived at work a full 25 minutes ahead of my normal time.”

As one urban designer explains, “Traffic controls give a false sense of security, an illusion of safety, which is ‘the biggest mistake we can make. Traffic rules strip us of our capacity for socially responsible behaviour, our ability to be considerate. The greater the number of prescriptions, the more the sense of personal responsibility dwindles.’”

Eliminate Hierarchy
When Jean-Francois Zobrist became the CEO of FAVI, a French company manufacturing automotive parts, he immediately stripped the company of its hierarchy – no more time cards, no more HR department, no more job titles or promotions. Instead, the employees were organized into 20 teams, each of them serving a customer – Fiat, Volvo, Volkswagen, etc. There was one very simple rule – you do what is needed for the customer. If the border crossings are blocked, work out an alternate route. Experiment and try out new procedures. Redesign your work space.

And it works. FAVI maintains double-digit profitability and consistently lowers prices.

Let Go
I have a tendency to be a control freak. I make plans, and I’m uncomfortable when they get changed. The lesson I learned from reading this book was that I’ll be more successful if I eliminate rules rather than adding to them.

1 comment:

John B. said...

There is a trade-off between simplicity and complication in organisation. The loose-jointed organisation is much more able to cope with changed conditions.

AS you have no doubt observed countries with no traffic rules are frightening and I think have more casualties - is this true I wonder?

The traffic flow at a roundabout is the supreme example of civilisation - cars give way or go ahead according to the rules and the traffic flows rapidly and safely. The social ethos works only so far - some enforcement is needed.

As a pedestrian in London I should never manage to cross the street with out the traffic lights to stop the cars for me.

Increasing bureaucratic complication strangles big corporations and I suspect has strangled every civilisation in turn.