An Introduction To The Broken Windows Theory Of Business

Mar 13, 2019
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When is a dirty bathroom a broken window?

No, that's not a riddle. It's a question that could today be at the
core of a business's success or failure.

Answer that question correctly
and use that answer as a beacon, and your business could dominate its
competition indefinitely.

Ignore the solution to the puzzle, and you
will be condemning your business to failure in a very short period of

The "broken windows" theory, first put forth by criminologist
James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling in a piece called "Broken
Windows "in the Atlantic Monthly magazine in March 1982, explains
what a broken window is in criminal justice terms.

But the brilliance
of that theory goes much further than one interpretation. It can and
should be applied to business, too, and it can make a critical
difference- if American businesses will simply take the time and have
the courage to notice.

When Wilson and Kelling first unveiled the theory, the idea of
focusing on seemingly petty criminal acts like graffiti or purse
snatching seemed absurd: How would a crackdown on jaywalking lead
to a decrease in murders?

The broken windows theory states that something as small and
innocuous as a broken window does in fact send a signal to those who
pass by every day. If it is left broken, the owner of the building is not
paying attention or does not care.

That means more serious
infractions … theft,
defacement, violent crime- might be condoned in this area as

At best, it signals that no one is watching.

This is the heart of the broken windows theory: Wilson and
Kelling write that "social psychologists and police officers tend to
agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all
the rest of the windows will soon be broken. "


message being sent out by a broken window- the perception it invites is
that the owner of this building and the people of the community
around it do not care if this window is broken:

They have given up, and
anarchy reigns here.

Do as you will, because nobody cares.

Wilson and Kelling suggested that a "broken window" – any
small indication that something is amiss and not being repaired- can
lead to much larger problems.

It sends signals, they said, that the bad
guys are in charge here; no one cares about maintaining some kind of
order, and anyone who wants to take advantage of that situation
would be unopposed.

It leads to lawlessness, a kind of anarchy by

"Just as doctors now recognize the importance of fostering
health rather than simply treating illness, so the police- and the rest of
us-ought to recognize the importance of maintaining, intact,
communities without broken windows, "wrote Wilson and Kelling.

Years later, Wilson told me that the idea behind the broken
windows theory "had to do with the responsibility of the police to take
seriously small signs of disorder because people were afraid of
disorder, and there was a chance disorder could lead to more serious
crime. "

Still, critics of the theory gifted it with skepticism, believing
that attention to small infractions would needarily would needarily
decrease the amount of attention that could have been devoted to much more
serious crimes.

The same objection, in slightly less genteel verbiage, was
raised when Rudolph Giuliani, the newly elected mayor of New York
City in 1994, announced his intention to eliminate graffiti on subway
cars and move the hookers and pimps out of Times Square, to make
Manhattan more "family-friendly."

Critics practically laughed in
Giuliani's face, intimating that the "law and order" may- who had
was elected based largely on his experience as a US attorney for the
New York area- was dealing with the small crimes because he knew he
could not contain the larger ones.

They were proved wrong.

Giuliani and his new police
commissioner, William Bratton, believed that if they sent out clear
signals to criminals, and to New York's citizenry generally, that a
"zero tolerance" policy would be applied to all crime in the city, the
result would be a safer, cleaner city.

And the statistics bore them out:
Over the following years, the numbers of murderers, assaults, robberies,
and other violent crimes all went down dramatically.

And it had all
started with graffiti on subway cars.

I can hear you asking, "What does that have to do with my
business? It's all about crime and criminals. "

That same theory is applicable to the world of business.
If the restroom at the local Burger King is out of toilet paper, it
signals that management is not paying attention to the needs of its
clientele. That could lead the consumer to conclude that food at this
restaurant might not be prepared adequately, that there might be health
risks in coming here, or that the entire chain of fast food out outlets
simply does not care about its customers.

Given that scenario, it is not a stretch of the imagination but in
fact a point of logic to conclude that the broken windows theory
should be applied to business, as it was to the problems of crime in
urban areas.

Certainly, the perception of the average consumer is a
vital part of every business, and if a seller, service provider, or
corporation is sending out signals that its approach is lackadaisical, its
methods halfhearted, and execution execution indifferent, the business in
question could suffer severe- and in some cases, irreparable-losses.

This book is about broken windows in business: how they
happen, why they happen, why they are ignored, and the fatal
consequences that can result from their being allowed to go

It is meant as a precautionary tale, a primer, a road map, a
manifesto, and a salute to those companies that fix their broken
windows prompt.

It will explore not only specific examples of
broken windows, how they occurred, and what their long-term results
were but also the culture that creates an environment in which
windows are broken and left unfixed.

I believe that small things make a huge difference in business.

The messy condiment area at a fast food restaurant may lead
consumers to believe the company as a whole does not care about
cleanliness, and therefore the food itself may be in question.

Indifferent help at the counter in an upscale clothing store-even if just
one clerk- can signal to the consumer that perhaps standards here
are not as high as they might be (or used to be).

An employee at the gas
station who wears a T-shirt with an offensive slogan can certainly
cause some customers to switch brands of gasoline and lose an
awesome company those customers for life.

But that's only the tip of the iceberg. I think we as a society
have fostered and encrypted broken windows in our business by
standing by and letting them happen. If the waiter at a local chain
restaurant is impolite, or even merely complacent, about our order, we
chalk it up to a bad day, one employee in one outlet of a large chain,
and we do not send a letter to management or the corporate level.

if we do change brands of gasoline after seeing an attendant in an
offensive T-shirt, we do not write or e-mail the president of the oil
company to alert him to the problem.

We are enablers to window
breakers in every aspect of every business. We do not even unnecessarily
patronize those companies that fix their broken windows, if the less
attentive one is in a more convenient location or has a slightly lower

That's not to say we are all to blame when a company has
broken windows and does not fix them, but it does mean we all bear
some responsibility to stand up for what we actually want and have
every right to expect out of a company to which we're giving our hard-earned

In a capitalist society, we can assume that a company
that wants to succeed will do its best to fulfill the desired of its
consuming public.

If the company sees sales slipping but does not have
data from consumers as to what made them decrease their spending on
a retail level, the company will not need to know what to fix.

Still, corporations and even small businesses that do not notice
and repair their broken windows should not simply be forgiven
because their consumers did not make enough of a fuss.

It is the
responsibility of the business to tend to its own house.

The owner of a
Starbucks franchise who decides that revenues are at a healthy level,
such that he or she can put off painting the store for another year, is
asking for trouble:

Yes, things are fine now, but when the paint is
faded and peeling and consumers are no longer getting the experience
they've come to expect, it will be too late to fix things with, literally, a
fresh coat of paint.

The time to repair broken windows is the minute
they occur.

It's better, however, to prevent such smashed panes of glass to
begin with.

This book will examine the origins of broken windows into
two purposes in mind. First, we will see how the small things that can snowball into
large problems develop so we can best illustrate how to
repair the damage once it's been done.

But it is equally important to
see how these things happen so that a smart business owner can make
sure to prevent them at- or before- the very first sign of trouble.

If you
have a policy to paint the store every year, you'll never have to worry
about whether this was the year you waited too long.

In order to best understand how the broken windows theory
relates to business, it's important to examine the original theory- as it
related to criminal activity- in some detail. Because of the brilliant
thinking of Wilson and Kelling, "Broken Windows" illustrated a
serious societal problem that was going unnoticed, and helped turn
around some of the country's largest cities (including the largest of all)
by paying attention to detail.

It began with a program in New Jersey in the mid 1970s. The
Safe and Clean Neighborhoods Program was meant to improve the
quality of life in twenty-eight Garden State cities, and it was to do so,
in part, by increasing the number of police officers on foot patrol,
rather than in patrol cars. Police chiefs, Wilson says today, felt that
such a move was not likely to lower crime levels, "and the police
chiefs were right: They did not have an effect on crime rates. But they
did have an effect- and in my view, a powerful effect- on how people
felt about their communities and their willingness to use it, suggesting
that fear of disorder was as important as fear of crime. "

Indeed, as Wilson and Kelling wrote in the Atlantic, "residents
of the foot-patrolled neighborhoods appeared to feel more secure than
persons in other areas, tended to believe that crime had been reduced,
and seemed to take fewer steps to protect themselves from crime
(staying at home with the doors locked, for example).

citizens in the foot-patrol areas had a more favorable opinion than did
those living elsewhere. "

What does this all mean to business?

It's not particularly that having
police officers walk the aisles of a Wal-Mart store will increase sales.
But it was the perception that something was being done to increase
order that made the difference for the people living in these New
Jersey cities.

In a business (as we'll discuss in detail through out this book), the broken windows
can be literal or metaphorical.

Sometimes a
broken window really is a broken window, and a new pane of glass
needs to be installed as quickly as possible. Most of the time, however,
broken windows are the little details, the tiny flaws, the overlooked
minutiae, that signal much larger problems either already in place or
about to become reality.

We'll examine companies- huge ones, household names- that
have failed to notice and repair their broken windows and have
suffered greatly for it.

We'll also look at those that have made it a
priority to attend to every potentially broken window and ordered
plenty of replacement panes to make quick, seamless repairs.

lessons learned will be many, and varied, and they will have happy,
and not-so-happy endings.

Sometimes companies that deserve to be
rebuked for their laziness will go unpunished, but other times there
will be retribution at the hands of the public, which shows exactly
what happens when you give people what they do not want.

What the public wants more than anything else is to feel that
the business-retail or service-oriented, consumer or business-to-business-
that work for them care about what they want.

are looking for businesses that anticipate and fulfill their needs and do
so in a way that makes it clear the business understand the consumer's
needs or wants and is doing its best to see them satisfied.

Broken windows indicate to the consumer that the business
does not care- either that it is so poorly run it can not possibly keep up
with its obligations or that it has become so oversize and arrogant that
it no longer cares about its core consumer. Either of these impressions
can be deadly to a business, and we'll see examples of both as we

If you run a business, and you truly believe that little things
do not make a difference, you really should read this book- it may save
your business.

If you do not run a business but would like to, this can be
the road map to your success. IF you're really interested in business
and wonder why one succeeds where a very similar one fails, perhaps
the examples contained here might help answer that question for you.

But it can not be overemphasized that tiny details- the smaller,
the more important- can indeed make a tremendous difference in a
business's success or failure.

Sometimes, yes, a company can make a
huge mistake (the whole New Coke thing was less a broken window
than a neutron bomb placed dead center on corporate headquarters),
but often, even those are foreshadowed by the little things that go, alas,

A broken window can be a sloppy counter, a poorly located
sale item, a randomly organized menu, or an employee with a bad

It can be physical, like a faded, flaking paint job, or symbolic,
like a policy that requires consumers to pay for customer service.

When the waiter at a Chinese restaurant is named Billy Bob, that's a
broken window.

When a call for help assembling a bicycle results in a
twenty-minute hold on the phone (playing the same music over and
over), that's a broken window. When a consumer asks why she can not
return her blouse at the counter and it told, "Because that's the rule,"
that is a broken window.

They're everywhere.

Exception at the really sharp businesses.

Read on.

Source by Michael Levine

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