The Broken Window Effect

HalamkaAs an adult I’ve returned to various locations from my childhood and
found the white picket fences, station wagons, and neighborhood shops
transformed into rough, run down, and unsafe neighborhoods. This did
not happen overnight. What happened in these places is the same thing
that can happen in a business or your personal life. I call it the
“Broken Window Effect”

Imagine the perfect “Lake Wobegone”
neighborhood where everything is above average. A baseball goes through
a window, but the owner decides not to fix it. Then, because the house
looks a bit shabby, another neighbor leaves a junked car on the street.
Then a bit of graffiti is not cleaned up. Then folks stop picking up
garbage from their yards.

The same thing can happen inside a house. One
pile on the floor doesn’t take too much room, so a few more piles are
put around it. Before long, all floor spaces have piles on them.
Maintenance items are deferred and junk is not tossed. Years pass and
eventually the house is unhealthy to live in, but no one really notices
because it happened so gradually.

In IT organizations the Broken
Window Effect can occur when management begins to tolerate downtime,
constant workarounds, and broken processes.

How do we prevent the Broken Window Effect?

downtime incident is investigated within hours of the problem, and a
full report is issued to our weekly change control board meeting. The
meeting is not punitive, it is a learning environment attended by all
my technical managers so that the entire organization can learn
together. Questions include

Was there a process failure?Was there a training failure?Was there a policy failure?Was there a planning failure?Was there a lifecycle maintenance failure?

examining ever incident when it happens and by building a culture that
encourages constant improvement based on collective sharing of our
experiences, we ensure that “broken windows” are fixed and that problem
recurrence is minimized.

The change control board was created
after my Network collapse in 2002 because at that time we discovered
several aspects of the IS organization that needed improvement such as

Lack of transparency to downtime with details not openly shared among all groupsSilos of technical knowledgeA tendency to work around and patch rather than identify and correct root causes of problemsA
lack of planning projects as a coordinated whole with all services –
applications, networks, servers, storage, desktop – considered
components of a single comprehensive implementation.

The change
control board is so rigorous that even I can get into trouble. I
recently implemented a health information exchange application update
and did not discuss it at the change control board. Thinking that it
was just a minor update, I assumed that there were no infrastructure
implications. However, given the fact that the application exchanges
data securely outside our firewall, involves databases, integration
engines, and application teams, it was important to brief everyone
first. My next directors meeting will include an overview of all our
health information exchange projects – past, present and future – for
all IS stakeholders.

On a personal level, I also try to avoid the broken window effect by renewing/maintaining all aspects of my life ie.

erase all emails older than 90 days and all files older than 1 year.
It’s really rare that issue has not been resolved after 90 days or
someone requests a file older than a year.

I replace my laptop every 2 years

I replace my blackberry every 2 years

I replace my clothes every 3 years

I keep no paper of any kind in my office and very little in my home.   All my reading materials are digital.

season has its activities that lead to renewal – Spring house cleaning,
Summer planting, Fall yard cleanup, Winterization to prep the house for
cold weather.

Whether it’s your neighborhood, your home or your
office, I recommend you stay vigilant for the Broken Window Effect.
Fixing all those broken windows keeps everyone engaged in renewal.

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6 replies »

  1. glad you can afford to replace your blackberry and computer so regularly..i don’t have a blackberry and my computer is a model t

  2. expanding on Amanda’s note, cause/effect relationships implicit in ‘broken windows’ remain somewhat controversial, and papers/articles on the topic are relatively easy to search for & locate (IMO well worth doing so).

  3. An apt analogy, but I’m left a little prickly. Professional IT people know all about this, fight to keep processes, technology, controls and procedures as they should be. That’s our jobs. It’s our craft. If we’re not doing that, we’re not doing IT. We’re supposed to help people do their jobs.
    But often others don’t want to contribute. Sometimes we watch the executive level write that off as some kind of whining. Sometimes we see doctors (or lawyers, or traders, or whatever high-strung customers we may have) demand 100% uptime for free and punish us by cutting funding when they don’t get what they want.
    Fact is that it helps if EVERYONE sees the broken window and believes it’s a bad thing that needs correcting. Often we get lost in the argument over whether that window is a hazard or an art.
    IT deserves more respect than it gets, but admittedly, there are enough bad examples, enough broken window scenarios, to make this simple analogy too fitting, too often.

  4. I really like the way you’ve expressed this concept and its applications to IT, but this is not a new idea – it’s very similar to the “Broken Windows” theory in criminology (with the same analogy about litter accumulating) as implemented by William J Bratton at the NYC Transit Police in the early 90s, and detailed in Kelling and Coles’ book “Fixing Broken Windows: Restoring Order and Reducing Crime in Our Communities.” It was also recapped in Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point.” I’m all for applying good ideas that work from other industries any time we can, but credit where credit is due…

  5. John,
    Speaking of downtime – have you ever determined why your organization, mine, and virtually everyone in health care does routine scheduled system downtimes on Saturday nights? I understand the theory that it gives you Sunday to recover, but there isn’t an ER in the country that isn’t busiest Friday night, Saturday night, Sunday late afternoon/evening, and Monday night (Tuesday if it’s a three day weekend). More admissions to our institutions occur at those busy ER times than at any other time. I would think that physicians in IT organizations could change this – do routine downtime on Wednesday night, and in reality do it Thursday morning between 3AM and 5AM – that’s when things are quiet.

  6. when I read page one of this post, I expected the rest of the post to talk about personal health issues — i’ve noticed that as relatives/friends of mine get older, they become more accepting of various aches and pains and body changes and this can lead to a serious problems which would have been much more minor if attended to when they first appeared.
    on the personal level that you end with, I think that exploring a new interest, making a new friend, and other forms of renewal beat out emptying the closet — some of my favorite clothes are more than three years old, while clothing mistakes are recycled as soon as I realize something isn’t working…