October 20, 2019 Randy Hain

Paying Attention to the Normalization of Defects

We all likely remember (or have read about) the tragic explosions of the space shuttles Challenger (1986) and Columbia (2003) and the deaths of all crew members in both accidents.  As you may recall, NASA’s investigation into both explosions uncovered problems that had been long known in the space shuttle program ranging from faulty O-ring seals (Challenger) to foam insulation falling off during launches (Columbia).  These problems, or defects, were widely known and expected to occur.  NASA accepted these defects as part of the space shuttle launch process. Questions were raised, to be sure, but the questions lacked the kind of disciplined attention necessary to stop the problems from occurring.  This has come to be known as the “normalization of defects”.

My friend Steve Moore, president of Growing Leaders, turned me on to this concept through leadership work he has done in the past on this topic.  Steve made the clear connection for me to understand that the normalization of defects uncovered at NASA had a clear correlation to the same challenge in the business world.

Consider that a problem or defect may be observed so often that it fails to generate appropriate questions and the desire to change it becomes diluted.  Because it is normal to expect the problem, questions go unasked and the problem is accepted as ‘the way we do things’.  If a business can list normal problems, it is guilty of normalizing defects.  The result is a form of dysfunction and sometimes significant limits are placed on the individual, team and organization’s ability to thrive and reach their full potential.

Do we ever consider the defects which have become “normalized” in our organization?  What bad habits have we accepted as a normal way of doing business that we know are wrong?  What toxic behaviors have we tolerated and allowed to negatively influence our teams or the overall company culture?  Sometimes these defects can be a flawed process in a manufacturing plant or a software bug in an inventory tracking system, but more often than not they are human behaviors which we can control if we have the courage to confront and correct them.

In my experience, these are six of the most common normalized defects I have observed in business:

  • Lack of candor which results in an overly nice and political approach to conversations which waters down or avoids the (sometimes) difficult truth that often needs to be shared.
  • Lack of accountability for results when leaders accept squishy timelines and vague commitments instead of clear deadlines with specific and measurable deliverables. This is also revealed in the playing of favorites, when poor performance is sometimes inexplicably overlooked or tolerated.
  • Lack of time. Unchecked busyness and a packed meeting calendar are the bane of existence for most of the leaders I know, which negatively impacts their ability to think strategically, be creative, invest in developing their people and contributes to burnout.
  • Silos exist everywhere in companies. They impede collaboration, negatively impact communication and contribute significantly to organizational dysfunction.  Often, a significant contributor to silos is the failure of leaders and their teams to forge effective and collaborative business relationships across their organization.
  • Ignoring the necessity of critical feedback. On an ongoing basis, effective leaders should seek out honest, specific and critical feedback on their personal performance.  They also have the responsibility to create a safe environment for team members to share this feedback.  When done consistently well, this can inform a leader of his/her own defects and increase their overall effectiveness.
  • Bad behavior of top performers is often ignored. A common problem, known but not often acknowledged, is the tolerance of poor behavior or shortcuts to the process for team members who deliver strong revenue results.

What can we do to address the normalization of defects in our own companies?  First of all, be patient.  It is easy to feel overwhelmed with the thought of rooting out and eliminating every defect.  Pursue the low-hanging fruit and the easy to spot issues that you know have been ignored.  If you are a leader with a genuine desire to make changes, consider these practical actions to get started:

  1. Practice Honest Self-Reflection. Look in the mirror.  Reflect on your own behaviors and those of your team and greater organization.  Where are the normalized defects?  What defects can you address that are within your control?
  2. Ask the Team. Bring the topic of defects up in 1:1 sessions, team meetings and even town halls.  Make it safe for colleagues to state what they think is broken or defective in how your organization is operating and thank them for their candid feedback.  Never, ever, shoot the messenger!
  3. Prioritize. In addition to being patient, it is more important to prioritize and address the urgent defects in bite-sized chunks.  Make this priority list an ongoing agenda item for all conversations going forward until the defects are addressed.
  4. Look for Obvious Clues. Dive deeper and investigate when you hear comments like the following:

“That is just the way we have always done things here.”

“Keep that stuff to yourself.  Our senior execs don’t want to hear anything negative.”

“Mike has always been really hard on his people.  That’s just his style.”

“We can’t ever get the information we need from Kathy’s team.”

“The project team missed the deadline again, but they are really busy.”

 “You better watch your step in Bill’s meeting.  He hates bad news.”

“I know what Janet did was wrong, but we can’t afford to lose her revenue contribution.”

The fifth proactive step is to be courageous.  Uprooting defects, our own and those of the organization, will not be easy.  We will likely encounter significant resistance because nobody likes to hear they made mistakes or by turning a blind eye to them are negatively affecting themselves, their team and the organization.  Let’s have the courage to be self-reflective and engage in honest conversations about what defects we have allowed to become normalized and root them out.  Not doing so means we, our teams and our organizations will continue to fall short of our potential and possibly even court disaster.  Encourage the dialogue to begin and let’s get started.

Good luck.

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