The subtle problem of a disorderly work area

Maxim #27

Fix “Broken Windows”

During the 1990’s, violent crime in New York City dramatically declined and people sought to understand why. The most intriguing explanation was called The Broken Windows Theory.

“Broken Windows was the brainchild of criminologist James Wilson and George Kelling. Wilson and Kelling argued that crime is the inevitable result of disorder. If a window is broken and left unrepaired, people walking by will conclude that no one cares and no one is in charge. Soon, more windows will be broken, and the sense of anarchy will spread from the building to the street on which it faces, sending a signal that anything goes. In a city, relatively minor problems like graffiti, public disorder, and aggressive panhandling, they write, are all the equivalent of broken windows, invitations to more serious crimes…

Worrying about graffiti at a time when the entire system was about to collapse seems as pointless as scrubbing the decks of the Titanic as it headed towards the icebergs. But the graffiti was symbolic of the collapse of the system. When you looked at the process of rebuilding the organization and morale, you had to win the battle against graffiti. Without winning that battle, all the management reforms and physical changes weren’t going to happen.

With felonies – serious crimes – on the subway at an all-time high, [he] decided to crack down on fare-beating. Why? Because he believed that, like graffiti, fare-beating could be a signal, a small expression of disorder that invited much more serious crimes. An estimated 170,000 people a day entered the system without paying. At $1.25 a fare, and an eight-hour processing time, Transit police turned a blind eye. So they picked stations where fare-beating was the worst, set up portable processing stations, put plain clothes cops in to collar fare-beaters and then made the fare-beaters wait in full public view until they had enough to efficiently process.

On the subways, by the end of the decade there were 75 per cent fewer felonies than there had been at the start. Murders dropped by two thirds.”

Excerpt from The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell

maxim_27“Broken windows” of various sorts are common in most businesses from obvious work flow clutter to less obvious errors or inconsistent formats in a presentation, spelling mistakes in a memo, etc. They are often difficult to eradicate because, as the story above mentions, broken windows are not seen as consequential.

Managers are trained to focus on the critical few. The broken windows theory goes a little counter to this, suggesting environment cannot be overlooked and that a cluttered plant or office will never be conducive to high levels of performance. It would argue that order and cleanliness are actually one of the “critical few” things a manager should focus on. The well-known Japanese workplace organization methodology called “5S” (sorting, straightening, systematic cleaning, standardizing, and sustaining) is useful to help create the environment you need to eradicate broken windows. It gives a sense of control to a front-line employee and makes problem solving a daily activity.