Broken Windows Theory

In "The Tipping Point", the author talks about the fact that people will commit crimes in areas where there an obvious lack of respect for property.  If you fix the broken windows and clean up a neighbourhood, crime will reduce.  In business, I think similar things apply.  A lack of respect for individuals leads to a lack of respect for all kinds of things.  Harvey, my mentor, always demonstrated respect for every person from the cleaning staff to the most senior people.  I think it led to many other great practices.

I think examples in an organization that does not treat clients and employees with respect can lead to all kinds of much more severe problems.  These things can start with very simple things and the whole environment and  business can start a downward spiral. 

Starting with repairing "broken windows" can lead to improvement in many areas.  A broken window might be ways that employees are treated when difficulties arise.  The office environment and the way that support staff are treated can be a symptom of serious problems.  How often are the human resources and IT the favourite scapegoats when things go wrong?  Finance people are called bean counters or worse.  Often customer people are called stupid or talked about disrespectfully.

What are some broken windows in your world?  What can you do to fix some little things that lead to profound change?


  1. Jim Reply

    Graham, that exactly what I meant. I knew I was talking about data warehousing. Sometimes the whole thing looks wrong but if you can fix the obvious errors, the broken windows, then the rest of the stuff will fall into place.
    I recall a simple system we had developed to track our revenues and the first reports were totally wrong and everybody dismiss the whole thing. The inital data loaded was just wrong. I hired a student to go though the data and correct the errors so that the reports would reflect reality. The reports then were used until we got a new system. If you can see the broken windows, you think the whole place is a mess.

  2. Graham Boundy Reply

    So let’s consider a data warehousing example.
    There are in any data warehousing environment a lot of broken windows. Little things that if fixed could make the warehouse much better. But we are often prevented from making these changes by production priorities, lack of funding, or our own inability to make small changes because the bigger problems overshadows the simple fixes.
    In the conclusion of “The Tipping Point” Malcolm Gladwell writes, “The critic looking at these tightly focused, targeted interventions might dismiss them as Band-Aid solutions. But that phrase should not be considered a term of disparagement. The Band-Aid is an in-expensive, convenient and remarkably versatile solution to an astonishing array of problems.”
    I can’t tell you the number of “fixes” that I have seen applied to a data warehouse that were deemed to be temporary solutions — Band-Aids — that would be properly fixed in the future because time or budget or lack of resource made the creation of a permanent resolution to the problem impossible at the time.
    There is never time to do it right but there is always time to do it over.
    Most data warehouses, and especially Enterprise Data Warehouses, start as a plan to replace the old out-dated reporting environment that will cleanse all the ills of the past. Over time, as features and functions are added, little cracks start to appear in the design, the second law of thermodynamics takes over and things start to move from a state of order to a state of disorder. The Band-Aids come out to fix the meriad problems that crop up as the system is used more and more.
    The Enterprise data warehousing environment ends up having more data stores than anyone originally envisioned the number of data replication required to copy, stage, transform, store and query the data become legion. Section of the warehouse fall into disuse, the meaning of their data lost in the catacombs of metadata respositories that never really could satisfy the needs of the technologists and the business. Windows get broken and left because no one cares or has the priorities to fix them. They’re to busy off building the next great, all encompassing warehouse to be concerned with the mundain maintenance of “that older section”.
    I think the biggest reason few people catch on to the importance of fixing broken windows and a long term strategy for maintain a complex environment is because it takes many many many people to build something as complex as a data warehouse. All of the people who work on the warehouse have their own ideas about architecture, implementation and realization. The problem is everyone has their own ideas about how the perfect data warehouse should be constructed. Look at Inmon and Kimball as the two most public examples of this — two smart people with egos and their own opinion of how data warehouses should be realized.
    Too many cooks spoil the broth. A camel is a horse designed by a committee. None of us is as dumb as all of us. AND why should I fix that broken window, I didn’t break it. Are all metaphors that can be used to describe why complex systems like data warehouse gradually grow to the point of being unmanagable.
    The simple fix, the Tipping Point, might be to focus on replacing small broken things and the complex issues will take care of themselves.

  3. Jim Reply

    In response to concern expressed by the previous comment, I would like to explain that not everybody at Project X is into data warehousing. However you are correct about us being data warehousing experts. Thank you for that.
    My contribution was invited by Stephen. I have lots of experience in the IT consulting business and offered to share some of my thoughts. However all my thoughts are relevant to the challenges we face in business which are not all about data warehousing.
    I am sorry you do not find them helpful. Date warehousing is important but so are many other issues.
    Thank you for the feedback. I am open to constructive suggestions on how I can improve my posts.
    We offer many services and do not wish to be only seen as data warehousing experts.

  4. BiiJii Reply

    Forget about broken windows. What about this broken blog!
    If your theory holds true then all these silly posts are brining down the neighborhood.
    I don’t understand what any of this has to do with data warehousing. You spout off here at Bell about being data warehousing experts but your blog sure says another thing.
    Poor performance impacts an organization and poor blogging impacts your company.

  5. Jim Reply

    After I read my post I thought of another example of a “broken window.” In a company I once worked for there was a vice-president who was obviously not performing and was talked about by many of us. He really set a standard which was way below the company needed to succeed. I called it the “——- Effect.” I used it to remind myself in later years if we tolerate poor performance it affects the whole organization. At one stage we asked one of partners to leave because if could not tolerate poor performance.

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