by Ed Muzio

Have you ever wondered why digital speed limit displays work? I am talking about the ones that flash your current speed in lights on a sign. If you think about it, they really should not make a difference. They do not do anything to make you slow down, and they do not tell you anything you do not already know. And yet, if you have one on your daily commute like I do, you know how that digital display of speed inspires nearly every driver to tap his or her brakes, in a way a normal speed limit sign never has.

Why is that digital roadside display so powerful? The answer, it turns out, contains some of the secrets of performance improvement.

First, the roadside display presents objective feedback as an interrupt.

The information is factual, and it is presented in on a sign that is bright, colorful, dynamic, and a little unusual. And while it is easy to unconsciously tune out the information we see regularly–speed limit signs being one of them–it is a lot harder to tune out something that interrupts your normal perceptions with something unexpected. So, the information is more likely to get through your filtration system and reach your awareness.

Second, the speed limit display is a form of instant feedback.

The sign is not only showing your speed, but also exactly how it compares to the standard. Sure, you could garner the same information by reading a conventional speed limit sign, and then checking your own speedometer by comparison. But that would require two steps–reading here and reading there–plus the cognitive action of comparison. Althoug that is not terribly difficult to do, it is a whole lot easier not to do it. As a result, you just keep driving without making changes. But when the work is done for you–when you see your speed side by side with the limit–in a fraction of a second you know how your performance compares with the guideline. Now, you are left to decide what to do with that information.

Third, the digital speed limit shows your speed to everyone.

Even though it is displaying objective data–and not judging you in any way–the roadside sign is telling other people what you are doing. Extensive psychological research has repeatedly proven that other people influence both our perceptions and our willingness to act. As it turns out, the question of whether you are willing to break with social norms–to speed, in this case–most likely has a different answer based upon whether others will know that you are doing it. By the way, the research is pretty convincing that you will disagree with that last statement–asserting your autonomy from such pressures–and that you will be wrong. When it is apparent that others can see what you are doing–when your speed is posted on a billboard, side by side with the posted limit it exceeds–you feel much more pressure to correct the situation than you would if the information were displayed privately in your car.

Fourth, this sign allows your correction to be self-policed.

When you pass a live radar trap, the control is externally imposed. So you slow down, pass the trap, and speed up again, with the goal of avoiding a ticket. But when you pass the digital sign, you make the decision to slow down on your own–or at least you think you do, because you are unlikely to recognize the social pressures involved. And because it feels like your decision, you are a lot more committed to it. Consider the difference between working for a boss who watches over your shoulder versus one who tells you she is relying on you to check yourself: You are a lot more committed when the responsibility is yours.

How can you apply these four principles to performance improvement?

Imagine an employee who is falling short of the target rate for some sort of routine work. Post a checklist on the wall in front the workstation for tasks to be marked off as they are completed (interrupt with objective data). Design the checklist to make the difference between current performance and desired performance apparent (create feedback relative to a standard). Have someone come by once a day and comment positively on anything ahead of schedule (make it visible to others). Do not allow negative comments or collection of the sheet at day’s end (allow self-policing).

Implement that system, and your employee’s output is likely to jump up. And this is not just a hypothetical story, by the way, it is the Ed Feeney Emery Air Freight case study made famous by Bill Daniels in his book Breakthrough Performance.

So the next time you pass a digital speed limit display, remember: It is not just a way to get everyone to slow down–it is a model for improving human performance, subtly and effectively

About the Author

Ed Muzio is the author of the award-winning books Make Work Great (McGraw-Hill, 2010) and Four Secrets to Liking Your Work (FT Press, 2008). He is a leader in the application of analytical models to group effectiveness and individual enjoyment. Originally trained as an engineer, Ed has started organizations large and small, led global initiatives in technology development and employee recruitment, and published articles and refereed papers ranging from manufacturing strategy to the relationships between individual skills and output. Ed’s analytical approach to human productivity has been featured in national and international media, including CBS, Fox Business News and the New York Post; he is a regular guest on CBS Interactive. With clients ranging from individual life coaches to the Fortune 500, he serves as an adviser and educator to professionals at all levels, all over the world. Prior to founding Group Harmonics, Ed was president and executive director of a human services organization, and a leader, mentor, and technologist within Intel Corporation and the Sematech consortium. A Cornell University graduate, Ed’s accomplishments include the creation and stewardship of a worldwide manufacturing infrastructure program, a nationally recognized engineering development organization, and a nonprofit organization providing residential services to at-risk youth in his home town of Albuquerque, NM.