Monday, December 29, 2008

The Broken Window Effect

As 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 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?

Every 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?

By 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 groups
Silos of technical knowledge
A tendency to work around and patch rather than identify and correct root causes of problems
A 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.

I 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.

Every 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.


Chris said...

Good post. There was an article in the Economist last month about the broken windows theory:

Unknown said...

John, That's a great article. I could not agree with you more. Interestingly the Jewish religion has a Passover tradition whereby you have to replace renew and refresh your house as part of the preparation for this holiday. I think there is great ancient wisdom in the idea of avoiding the broken window effect.

Kat said...

So you have no physical books in your home?

John Halamka said...

I have no newspapers or magazines in my home/office and one small bookcase of books that are not available digitally. Otherwise, all my reading resources are either online or Kindle-based.

Bob Carpenter said...

Hunt and Thomas discuss what they call the "broken window effect" for programming projects in their book The Pragmatic Programmer.

I think their book contains the least dogmatic and least process-oriented set of advice for programmers I've read.