I've been reading Malcolm Gladwell's Tipping Point. In it, he talks about a concept called Broken Windows, which is the idea that if we "clean up the sidewalk every day, the tendency is for litter not to accumulate - or for the rate of littering to be much less." People tend toward civility more than they want to contribute to lawlessness if their environment is orderly. As Napoleon put it, "A man becomes a creature of his uniform." New York City found that by getting rid of the grafitti and by fixing the broken windows, crime subsided during the 1990's.
The axiom would be: take any system that appears broken, and set high standards within the environment that houses the system, and odds are that the system's defects will decrease.
My first manager was Frank, when I worked at Friday's. No idea where Frank is today, but his motto was, "Standards, bro." If a table was wobbly and lacked a wobble-stopper, then he would simply pull the chair. The rest of the restaurant was similarly treated. When he interviewed me for the job of busboy, he asked, "How fast do you run the hundred yard dash?" That was Frank. Under his leadership, we were Store of the Quarter for the entire Friday's chain for two or three quarters in a row.
The axiom being: the higher our standards, the less likely defects will find their way into the system.
That may seem obvious, but think about it. We will live in a world increasingly flat and devoid of recognized leadership. In order for standards to be implemented, we need to recognize a leader who is unafraid to issue standards for behavior and we need to respect that leader enough to live up to the standards. This implies a culture and organization. But this is the age of the multicultural. It is the age of transience and loose affiliations.
How do we set standards today? By example, assuming that others will esteem us enough to follow our lead?
I don't know, but I'll be thinking a lot about this in the coming weeks.
ETC: I watched The King and I over the weekend. This is a great case in point about standards. Leaders establish culture and to the degree that a leader is recognized by those he/she leads, those who follow will adhere to the culture. The king's servants all dropped prostate to the floor in the presence of the king. Anna, not being a servant, didn't recognize some of what the king said and while she treated him with respect, she more treated him as a peer than as a king. At the end of the film, the king's son, who was taught by Anna and becomes the new king, proclaims that people will no longer bow to the floor in the king's presence, but instead show respect and hold their head and chin high. New culture.
Standards are not just declared by a leader, but we declare standards in our own life as well. These run across many axes, such as appearance, manner, work ethic, how we care for our body, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. (Sorry - couldn't resists that.)
I was reading Tom Peters over the weekend and in one of his slides, he gives the 3 E's. Tom, back in the 80's, wrote "In Search of Excellence." Today, he insists that we personally have the standard for ourselves of Enthusiasm, Execution, and Excellence - the 3 E's. Said another way, passionately get it done with the highest quality.
What is a standard? Something established by authority, custom, or general consent as a model, example, or point of reference. Notice that there is no hint of the level of quality there. A standard is a bar. It's what is acceptable. We hear of people with high standards and we hear of people with no standards. What do we expect of ourselves? What's the minimum?
Do we wear white shoes after Labor Day? Do we iron our clothes? McDonald's or Outback? Daily exercise or never exercise? Sir and Ma'am? Swear words? All of these fit into our standards for ourselves and what we expect of others and what we believe others expect of us. Standards define culture. They are rules, the bright lines of behavior and lifestyle. They determine how we conduct ourselves and how we raise our children.
At work, we like to have the expectations of us written down as a point of reference. Do we do this for ourselves? And do we hold ourselves accountable to it if we fail? Is it okay for standards to be a bit squishy? If they are squishy, are they truly standards? Or are standards always non-negotiable?