When Rudy Giuliani was Mayor of New York City he applied this criminal law theory to the neighborhoods in New York City and cleaned up graffiti, garbage thrown around, broken windows and anything that would in any way diminish the neighborhoods. He cleaned up the neighborhoods on the theory that by paying attention to the small details, there would be a change in attitude - and crime would be reduced as pride was restored.
The theory was first introduced in 1982 in an article in the Atlantic Monthly by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling. The Wikipedia article quotes the Atlantic Monthly article as follows:
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.
Why, you might be asking is she talking about criminal theory in a business and professional newsletter? How does this apply to the workplace?
So, my answer is that small things add up to big things. When I go into a company I often notice how small things are causing big - unnecessary expenses.
Let me offer you a few examples:
When asked to come in and investigate an allegation of sexual harassment in one of our biggest local High Tech companies, the contract was for $5,000.00. Yet, the contract department of this organization submitted a ten page contract for me to show to my attorney and get his authorization before I signed and returned it. Most of what was in the contract was completely unrelated to the work I was hired to complete.
Another similar example - I recently signed a contract with a government agency to do some Executive Coaching. The original contract they sent me was the same as one they would have used for contractors building a building, or a freeway overpass. It took three iterations back and forth over close to a month before we finalized a contract that made sense for the type of work I was being asked to do.
An example I've used before was when I helped a major transportation agency create a simple refund system for when people complained that the ticket machine wasn't working properly. Prior to my intervention, when someone was asking for a refund of $5.00 or less the process was to investigate to make sure the machine was really malfunctioning, plus putting an accounts payable chit into the major Oracle Relational Database system - which meant about three or four people handled it before the check was cut. It probably cost them about $1,000.00 to process a $5.00 check.
My intervention was to give the accountant in charge a dedicated checking account, a QuickBooks system and got permission that allowed him to refund anything up to and including $10.00 without investigation. He had the full accountability - actually easier and quicker - because he could sort by name, by address (where the check was to be sent) and/or by machine. So, it now cost a few pennies to make these small refunds and created a great deal more goodwill.
There are so many examples of people of goodwill - working hard - doing far too much than they need to do to effectively and efficiently solve a problem or complete the necessary task.
So, when I say, "if I were that piece of paper - where would I go" or "what would I need to do" I am trying to work with my client to look at things from a new angle so that they can simplify their processes - save themselves time - and save their company lots of money.
Broken Window Theory!
Here’s another way of looking at it:
"Happy Employees Make Happy Customers." We've all heard that or similar phrases many times. The opposite is also true: If you are rude, condescending, or disrespectful to your employees they will not give their jobs their all. They will do just enough to get by.
If you assume they can figure out the best way to do a job - you might be right, but you might also be abrogating responsibility and asking too much of someone who isn't trained to create the most parsimonious system - and you will get something far less effective than if you helped in the process.
If as union supervisor, you set the example of quitting work fifteen minutes before quitting time you are telling others it is OK to fudge and to give your employer less time than s/he deserves. I saw that happening repeatedly when I was conducting a weekly workshop from 3- 5 PM in a government agency. At 4:45 PM each week of the workshop, the union supervisor, would close her workbook, take out her compact and lipstick and re-apply her lipstick, put them in her purse, and sit with her purse on the table and her hands folded above it, waiting for the clock to turn to 5 PM.
Any one of these examples is just an example of something small and seemingly insignificant - but just like the broken windows - they set a pattern - they develop an attitude - and a corporate culture of doing things less than excellently.
The Tipping Point - in the right direction - is when time is given to real process improvement using a consultant (plug) who works collaboratively with workplace teams to see what could be improved.
Symbolically, fixing the broken windows, removing the graffiti, making things work easier and better, setting good examples - all tip the scale and create employees that are highly motivated and feel good about what they do - and the company in which they work.