Japan’s railway system is regarded as one of the best in the world. Its extensive network of tracks moves about 12 billion passengers each year with remarkable punctuality. The average delay on the Tokaido Shinkansen line between Tokyo and Osaka in 2018, for instance, was just 0.7 minutes1.
To keep the line operations safe and efficient, train conductors play important roles. And if you ever get onto one of their trains, you’ll notice that they have some peculiar routines. As each operator runs the train, they make a variety of physical gestures and vocal calls.
When the train approaches a signal, the conductor will point at it and say, “Signal is green.” As the train pulls into each station, the operator will point at the speedometer and say the exact speed out loud. When the train pulls out, the operator will point at the timetable and call out the time.
Pointing and Calling
Out on the platform, other staff members perform similar routines. Before each train departs, they point along the edge of the platform and exclaim, “All clear!” Every important detail is identified, pointed at, and called out.
This method, known as “Pointing and calling,” is a safety system designed to minimize mistakes. It might seem silly to visitors, but it works incredibly well.
Research shows that “Pointing and calling” reduces mistakes by almost 85 percent2. In New York City, the MTA subway system adopted a similar “Point and acknowledge” procedure, and “within two years of implementation, incidents of incorrectly berthed subways fell 57 percent.”3
The reason methods like these are so effective is that they raise the awareness of the staff. When the workers have to use not just their eyes, but also their hands, mouth, and ears, they’re much more likely to notice problems before something goes wrong.
My girlfriend Lisa does something very similar. When she’s leaving our home, she walks by the stove, points at the knobs, and says “zero, zero, zero, zero, zero” out loud, ensuring that the plates are all turned off.
Many negative outcomes are largely attributable to mindlessness. Maintaining awareness of what we’re doing is one of the most challenging aspects of behavior change. So we can benefit a lot from creating our own “Pointing and calling” system.
Whenever you want to break a bad habit, begin by raising your awareness about it. When does it happen? How often do you do it? Where are you? Who are you with? What triggers it?
A great way to start is to track how many times per day your bad habit takes place. Put a piece of paper and a pen in your pocket. Each time your bad habit happens, mark it down. At the end of the day, count up the tally marks and calculate your total.
This simple exercise will make you much more aware of the behavior. You’ll gather valuable data that you can use to track your progress. And you’ll start generating ideas for how to break it.
- Central Japan Railway Company Annual Report 2018
- JR Gestures
- Why Japan’s Rail Workers Can’t Stop Pointing at Things
Hat tip to James Clear for introducing the idea of pointing and calling your behaviors in his great book Atomic Habits.