Stop Signs vs. Stop Lights

Sitting in traffic today I realized that teams of people are either like stop lights or four-way stop signs.

Stop lights are nice because everybody knows the rules, and they aren’t flexible. Everybody knows what everybody else should be doing, which is either sitting there idling, burning expensive fuel, or driving forward full-blast. Big queues build up sometimes behind a stop light, blocking other streets. When the stop lights aren’t timed perfectly (and they rarely are) you get these gobs of cars hurrying, then waiting, then hurrying again. One thing is true, though: that clueless guy talking on his cell phone doesn’t mess things up too much. Even they can figure out when to go.

Stop signs are different, especially the four-way kind. Your driving instructor told you that things move around to the right, but in practice there are tons of shortcuts, simple optimizations people make. Like if the fellow across from you is going straight you can, too, at the same time. Or being able to turn right, out of order. If you’re waiting for your turn at the game you keep moving steadily forward, always advancing. When you get to the game, though, you find that things are very fluid, and you had better know what you’re doing or you’ll mess it up for everybody. That clueless guy on his cell phone screws up the whole system, though, requiring heroism from others to get things back to normal.

Seems to me that’s exactly like most teams. Lots of teams start out as a stop sign, but eventually they get someone who is the equivalent of a cell phone idiot, not paying attention to their job, messing it up for everybody. So it takes a hero to fix things that cell phone idiot breaks, but eventually the hero can’t keep up, and management puts in a stop light. Lots of rules, lots of forced latency, and very little flexibility forcing everybody else down to cell phone idiot’s level, a lowest common denominator. The strangest thing is that “stop lights” get labeled as progress. Managers pat each other on the back for the standardization, the procedural improvements, etc. when all they really did was encourage universal mediocrity by not removing the cell phone idiot from the team. Congratulations, you crippled your team and kept substandard employees! Real progress would be if teams took down the stop signs altogether, by finding and removing delays & obstacles to getting things done.

It’s been years since I’ve seen a yield sign, or an intersection without a sign at all. I miss them.

3 thoughts on “Stop Signs vs. Stop Lights”

  1. I couldn’t agree with you more. I feel the same way at were I work. At least once a week I get an e-mail on a new “process” that is being rolled out. I believe this all goes back to having common sense. If you don’t have any then you need a boat anchor not just a stop light. We used to have a lot more people with common sense (and people to watch the people without common sense) but then someone thought it was a good idea to try and outsource common sense. This didn’t work to well for them. So the next plan was to try and outline common sense through a process called “ITIL”. The people still left at the company with common sense are being told they don’t know how to do there job anymore and should become a process zombie. A process zombie is much like a real zombie. A regular zombie wants to eat your brains because, it’s a zombie and that’s what zombies do. A process zombie can only follow processes because that’s what a process zombie does no matter how stupid the process may be. If a process zombie does not have a process they might become angry and try to eat your brains anyway 😉

    You can easily recognize a process zombie by the following phrase: Please reboot your, (modem,computer,….internet) 1st or I can not help you with your issue.


  2. Interestingly, a recent article showed a semi-rural town in the UK ripping out a series of stoplights in a route through town.

    They replaced it with nothing. As far as I remember, no signage, essentially so it’s one big yield area.

    Safety’s up, pedestrian awareness is up, accidents are down and, the biggest surprise, the route now handles twice the traffic, with 30 minute delays cut to nothing. Air and noise quality for residents has improved, since the people moving through from the Burbs no longer linger.

    Seems when people need to decide things for themselves, they can do it quicker and with more awareness than when they passively watched for lights and paid little attention.

    I, too, miss the uncontrolled intersections.

  3. I completely agree. First, you got the brain dead people who don’t know how to go through an intersection. The light turns green and they take forever to go. Second, stop lights waste enormous amounts of time and cause more fuel to be burned because, many times, nobody is moving. There might be no cars coming from one direction, but a long backup from other directions. Rather than throwing up a stop light at every single little intersection, it would be better to think more creatively in problem-solving. This is one area that I have to agree the British have a far superior system. ( The British favor roundabouts, which are proven to be very effective and much safer. People are forced to negotiate the process, but it keeps people moving; there’s never a moment when someone’s just idling. After visiting the UK for a week a few years ago, it made me really wish we could make the same concept more common in the US. To this day, I think about it every time I sit idly at a stop light and nobody’s moving.

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