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Broken Windows Theory in Continuous Improvement

Posted by Maggie Millard

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Feb 23, 2015 7:11:00 AM

15812283110_61545c343a_m“Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it's unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside.

Or consider a pavement. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of refuse from take-out restaurants there or even break into cars.”

- George Kelling and James Wilson, from Broken Windows published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1982

The quote above is from a study by George Kelling and James Wilson in which they posit that major crime in cities escalates when small crimes go unchecked. According to their theory, while small crimes - a single broken window, some litter on the sidewalk, a lone panhandler - don’t pose a threat to society, the fact that these small crimes are permitted to persist indicates that no one cares, and major crimes soon follow.  Major crimes can be prevented if these smaller crimes are controlled. This has come to be known as the “broken window theory.”

How does the broken window theory apply to continuous improvement?

Stop small problems from escalating

Just as you can (in theory) prevent graffiti and squatting by simply fixing a broken window, encouraging staff to identify small problems and implement improvement results in the prevention of those small problems escalating into bigger ones. And, we know morale suffers when small problems don’t get fixed, which leads employees to managers to throw up their hands and give up on the bigger problems and opportunities for improvement.

For example, imagine that your operators use Tool A to complete a task in the safest, most efficient way possible. Tool A is supposed to remain at its workstation, but sometimes the operators accidentally take it with them when they change stations. When the next operator arrives at the station and find that there’s no Tool A, they have to stop working and go find one.

Let’s say, though, that the operator is in a hurry (maybe they’re being placed under undue pressure to hit production quotas)  and they don’t want to stop to go find Tool A, so they improvise and use Tool B instead. Tool B isn’t well-suited for the job, and occasionally the operators get injured when the make the substitution. This is expensive for the company, and is, of course, unfortunate for the injured employee.

Small problem: Tool A is not available at the work station. 

Easy solution: Attach the tool to the workstation with a cable so that operators remember to leave it. This might require buying more copies of Tool A, but that relatively small cost might be more than offset by the efficiency and safety improvements that result.

Big problem: If Tool A is still not available, a worker has gotten injured by implementing the workaround, and the company has to pay Workers’ Compensation while they recover. Morale in the workplace suffers when employees don’t think safety is really the top priority. People stop pointing out other problems to solve.

Just as fixing a broken window is easier than increasing the police force to reduce neighborhood crime, it’s easier to fix small problems in businesses before they escalate into bigger problems.

Show that someone cares

In 1969, a Stanford psychologist (Philip Zimbardo) parked a car on a street in Palo Alto, CA with the hood propped open. The car remained that way, untouched, for a week. After a week passed, Zimbardo himself smashed part of it with a sledgehammer. Passersby immediately joined in, and the car was completely destroyed within hours.
Why? As the Atlantic Monthly article referenced above says, “Vandalism can occur anywhere once communal barriers - the sense of mutual regard and the obligations of civility - are lowered by actions that seem to signal that "no one cares.” People assumed that, as someone’s private property, the car was valued, and they left it alone - until the “owner” showed that he didn’t care, at which point the car was destroyed.

If there are small problems in your organization and you don’t create an environment that allows employees and managers to do anything about them, what signal are you sending? Sure, your employees probably aren’t going to vandalize your business with a sledgehammer… but they’re not going to respect it, either - and they certainly won’t exert discretionary effort to improve it. Asking your employees to identify and fix small problems in your business sends the signal that you care, and will prompt them to care as well. 
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