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Traffic Signals – A template for systems improvement

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

Traffic Signals – A template for systems improvement

Scott Miker

Last week Google changed their homepage to reflect the anniversary of the traffic light.  They highlighted how traffic signals evolved and how they were implemented to solve a problem. 

I tend to highlight systems and habits examples a lot but the traffic innovations used to control transportation are truly fascinating to me.  The fact that problems were solved systematically and remain in place today shows the power of thinking systematically in order to solve a problem. 

So let’s evaluate this system a little more.  Hopefully it can provide insight into our own lives and give us a new perspective on setting and reaching goals. 

First, let’s identify the problem.  The problem was that automobiles were becoming increasingly more popular and common among city streets.  The streets previously were used by pedestrians and slow-moving animal-powered vehicles.  They didn’t need an advanced traffic pattern in order to remain safe. 

I think about boating today.  When we head out on Lake Erie we have a lot of open space and don’t need traffic lights in the middle of the lake.  But as we head towards congested areas, there are traffic systems in place to make sure the boaters are safe. 

Next let’s look at the way they went about solving this problem.  They didn’t just change one dangerous intersection or close it down.  They didn’t provide extra training to every driver and they didn’t ignore it in the hopes that it would correct itself. 

No, they saw a problem and found a systematic way to correct for that problem.  They created a light system that allowed traffic to be controlled and ultimately developed safer transportation for all.  The system was easy and didn’t require a lot of extra training to understand.  It was consistent and it was enforceable. 

There are several keys to this but I would like to highlight four.  The system they implored was simple.  They created accountability, which helped it become sticky.  They were scalable.  The traffic systems relied on flexibility and were evolved over time to better address traffic problems. 

One of the keys to a good system is that it is easy.  If it is complex there is likelihood that it won’t be followed.  We all have probably tried some complex diet or told to read a complex book that we barely understood.  The reason these are likely to fail is because the complexity provides a blocker to it becoming a habit. 

The accountability came from the ability to enforce the laws with traffic citations and fines.  This provided a motivation to abide by the new system.  Refusing to follow the rules came with consequences. 

The lights were scalable.  Once they solved this problem on one street corner they could then implement this same solution on other street corners.  It became a simple solution that solved a great problem.  It didn’t require an individual assessment of each situation with a completely unique solution.  Each street intersection could rely on the general solution to their problem. 

Finally the system was flexible.  This article gives a good look at the early evolution of the traffic light.  It details the process they used and how the early systems were changed and modified until they had a stable system that worked.  Over the years the traffic light and other traffic systems have been adjusted, improved, abandoned, and increased to meet the needs of that particular situation.  This universal system could be adjusted to fit different situations such as having multiple lanes, one-way streets, and pedestrian traffic. 

There are great examples all around us that show that looking at problems systematically can help us create a better solution.  We can focus on making them easy, accountable, scalable and flexible in order to consistently reach our goal and avoid obstacles.  The traffic light (and the evolution of traffic laws) provides an excellent example of how to solve problems relying on systems and habits.