Keeping Things Clean

In 1982 an essay was written by two professors that introduced the idea of the “Broken Windows Theory.” In its essence, the idea is that where we hold the line with respect to order in a community, crime is less. The other side of this coin is that crime flourishes where we let standards slip. When buildings are left vacant, graffiti and vandalism spreads. Where graffiti is allowed, the derelicts of society shuffle on over. Broken windows, garbage, and graffiti show the shifty characters that rules aren’t enforced here. Where little crimes are overlooked, bad behavior spreads. Matthew Syed writes of this idea in The Greatest, “Serious crime emerges from the tolerance of low-level disorder, the steady attrition caused to good values and respect.” Described differently by Alex Berenson in Tell Your Children Broken Windows theory “held that failing to check low-level lawbreaking created an impression of disorder and allowed more serious crimes to flourish.”

This insight became the basis of New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s tough on crime policy he referred to as the “No Broken Windows” policy. He pushed his law enforcement departments to pursue zero tolerance approaches to even the smallest of crimes. As a result, crime rates hit historical lows.

In the sport of Formula 1 (F1) car racing, the devotion to detail is renown. Competition is intense and resources are abundant. Teams of engineers monitor upwards of 16,000 variables on vehicle and driver to squeeze out every iota of performance possible. In a world where victories are worth millions and the margin of victory measured in milliseconds, it’s tough to win. In most seasons, less than a handful of teams win an event. Only one wins the overall or “Constructors’ Championship.”

Despite the intensely competitive environment, one team, Mercedes-AMG Petronas stood out for the better part of a decade from the early 2010s to 2020s. During this decade, they won almost 70% of the races in which they participated while winning the Constructors’ Championship an incredible eight times. A massive team effort with hundreds of contributors produced this performance. Many faces changed during this decade. In an HBR article, one face that didn’t change and his approach is discussed. Toto Wolff was the team principal or manager. The authors of the article were invited to spend months shadowing Wolff and his team and created not just this article but a case study they taught in their business class at Harvard. The study offered six lessons learned from the Mercedes-AMG team that may be applied to other organizations.

The first lesson offered is the importance of setting high standards. Not just performance objectives, but standards for all team members at all levels of the organization. It started with presenting professionally in terms of cleanliness. From his earliest introduction to the team, Wolff noticed some reading materials shoddily spread out on tables in a reception area. As he met with one of the team owners as he was being hired he mentioned that he looked forward to being part of the team. However, some things would, literally, need to be cleaned up. He talked of the reception area. The owner was a bit surprised and thought the focus should be not on organizing magazines on a coffee table but on automotive engineering. Wolff replied, “No, it’s the attitude. It all starts with an attention to detail.” A meticulous mindset matters for everyone. No stone is left unturned at any level. Everything everyone does matters. It all contributes to the larger cause. None of us can afford to let our standards slip as this will sink the ship.

Wolff wasn’t worried about being seen as a micro-manager. He wanted to practice what he preached and went to each corner of the organization seeking to instill the importance of attention to detail. In another example offered in the article, he created a role a “hygiene manager.” The hygiene manager became responsible for managing the team’s bathroom facilities both at home and when they travelled. Wolff took the time to demonstrate, after having been disappointed by experiencing facilities used by sponsors at the team’s hospitality area, to what level the facilities should be kept clean. He physically cleaned the toilets himself. He wrote the procedure to pursue. He then emphasized why the attention to detail in the role mattered to the organization. The efforts were anything but trivial. Wolff is quoted saying, “I physically showed him how I wanted him to clean the toilet, how to put the brush back, how to wipe the floor, how to put the soap bottles with the front facing forward, how to sanitize the handles, and so on.” With clear guidance and knowledge that what was going on here mattered, Wolff left his manager to take care of the details from there. He set clear and high standards, then stepped back.

Excellence can be found everywhere. It can also evaporate or erode into the ether as we let empty toilet paper holders and dirty bathrooms leak into broken windows and chaotic crime. Sure, ideas of high standards, zero tolerance, five sigma, and five 9s represent the standard bearers of describing quality in high stakes environments like performance engineering, aeronautics, and aviation. However, encouraging tight tolerances in other areas is a strength as well.

Where can we see intolerance as a strength? Hold the line and things are more likely to be fine. Catherine Hoke writes in A Second Chance, “If you make a list of ten values that are important, which three to five values will you never, ever compromise?” What principle will your prioritize? What is your value that you hold as your highest virtue? Which will you seek to serve with 100% commitment and reliability? Are the answers to these questions clear in your organization? Are the answers to these questions clear in your role?

Prior to pursuing perfection or the latest and greatest, new fangled, whiz bang, cracker jack idea cooked up by an expensive group of consultants, seek out your broken windows and repair those. Look for the little leaks in your business or life. Begin with the basics. Fix small problems prior to trying to invent the next great innovation. Raise standards and hold the line on the little things and build from there.