Fix the Broken Windows

By Ron Pereira Updated on January 13th, 2011

broken-window.jpgWhat do fixing broken windows and continuous improvement have in common? I contend a lot.  Read on and let me know if you agree.

The so-called broken window theory comes to us by way of the criminology world.

Broken Windows

The theory asks us to consider a building with broken windows. It goes on to state that if these windows are not repaired, vandals are far more likely to come along and break additional windows.

Then, unsatisfied with this, these misfits may ultimately decide to break into the building for more severe crime (theft, arson, etc.).

Conversely, proponents of the broken window theory claim that by fixing all the broken windows vandals are less likely to smash any windows, much less break into the building and burn it down!

Not Just Windows

The theory is not limited to broken windows. It can easily extend to trash on a sidewalk, or graffiti on the side of a building. Clean things up, broken window theory advocates say, and crime will plummet.

In 1985, George Kelling, author of the book Fixing Broken Windows: Restoring Order and Reducing Crime in Our Communities was brought to New York City to put this theory to test.

Initially, graffiti vandalism was targeted. When they saw it they cleaned it off. If they came back the next day, and more graffiti had magically appeared, they cleaned it off again. This battle of wills went on for several years.

Rudy in Charge

A few years later, then Mayor Rudy Giuliani took this theory to another level as he implemented a zero tolerance attack on things like subway fare evasion and the squeegee men who cleaned your car windows and demanded payment. Interestingly enough, crime rates fell in dramatic fashion once these “broken windows” were addressed.

The Opposition

As with anything in life, the broken window theory has its skeptics. Opponents say the fact crime fell after these changes were implemented is more a case of correlation than of causation. One may never know for sure but I tend to side with the broken window theory believers.

A recent trip to Old Navy in the Houston area reinforced my belief in this theory… but I will save that for another post later this week!

Just Like Continuous Improvement

So what does this have to do with the continuous improvement mindset?

Well, I contend that while there may not be many broken windows (at least I hope not) in the factories, hospitals, or office buildings we work in… there are many other broken aspects we could attend to.

When you see an empty Styrofoam coffee cup on a desk, do you leave it there or throw it away? When you see a pallet jack outside it’s taped off area, do you correct it or walk on by? When you notice standard work not being followed on a Friday afternoon at 4:55 PM, do you act on it or leave it until Monday?

You see, broken windows are all around us. The question is… what are we doing about it?

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  1. Stan Wilson

    April 8, 2008 - 8:02 am

    FUnny timing! Just the other day a colleague and I stood and watched how many people would walk by a candy wrapper on the floor before picking it up. We watched for quite a while! Finally, after what seemed like forever a gal threw it away. Great post.

  2. Ron Pereira

    April 8, 2008 - 8:32 am

    Thanks for the comment Stan. I saw the exact same thing (only 100x worse) at an Old Navy store this past weekend. I will blog about it tonight or tomorrow. Stay tuned.

  3. Bull

    April 9, 2008 - 8:00 am

    How do you keep your composure when after just 3 days you have already replaced that broken window time and time again. It isn’t so bad when the one who breaks it doesn’t know any better because you can explain what you are trying to accomplish and show them what you have done. It is really bad when the one who breaks it is the one who knows that you just fixed it and is just too lazy to help. It seems that people just get a thrill out of breaking the window and throwing the spray paint all over the walls and then watch you clean it up. It gets really bad when you are fixing the windows not for yourself but, for others and they do not appreciate it.

  4. Mark Graban

    April 9, 2008 - 7:14 pm

    The book Freakonomics, starting pg 116, does a pretty compelling job of debunking the “broken windows” theory. Crime started falling in 1990, Giuliani wasn’t in office until 1994. The NYPD grew it’s force 45% between 1991 and 2001 (3x the national average) so just having more officers might get the credit. Thirdly, crime went down everywhere. Los Angeles had a similar drop in crime without the broken windows approach.

    I’m not saying it’s important to pay attention to small things, but just wanted to share that data.

    Anytime a politician takes credit for crime dropping, you have to ask (was this a Deming story?) about the rooster taking credit for the sun rising in the morning…

  5. Ron Pereira

    April 9, 2008 - 7:31 pm

    I believe that Kelling actually started the initiative, for lack of a better word, in 1985 as I mentioned in the post. So debunking it based on when Rudy came into office seems a bit shaky. Kelling was hired by the NYC Transit authority.

    With this said, the counter arguments others bring forward cannot be dismissed… but to me, common sense kicks in and says this broken windows theory makes perfect sense. If people live like animals, they behave like animals.

    One thing we can be certain of… fixing the windows, cleaning up the graffiti, and cracking down on petty crime (all related to this theory) sure didn’t hurt things.

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