For the love of frogs

Falling victim to complacency can cause irreversible damage

Music plays in our home quite a bit. Whether quietly in the background or loud in the foreground, songs are often playing. A few weeks ago, our middle child was playing a Rolling Stones classic through our music app, which automatically plays another song in that same genre when the current song ends.

After the Stones, the app played another classic rock song, but it was slightly newer. Then, an even newer and louder song played, and then another. This algorithm continued for a few songs until death metal was blasting out of the speakers (mom clearly wasn’t home.)

A small but consistent trend resulted in us ending up in an entirely different spot (White Zombie) than where we started.

Like the proverbial frog in the pot where the temperature slowly increases, we didn’t notice any real change until we were cooked. Surely this wasn’t the intention of the app; we haven’t noticed it happening before, but it was interesting it did happen.

This same scenario can happen in our lives and companies with items far more consequential than weird song selection. These small, perhaps imperceptible, changes can compound over time to bring real results whether good or bad.

On the good side, small improvements or investments that may mean essentially nothing in the moment become something meaningful over time.

This concept is similar to compound interest, which Warren Buffet attributes much of his financial success to. He likens it to rolling a snowball down a hill. The longer the hill, the bigger the snowball will be at the bottom.

If you take care of your car from the beginning, it will last longer. If you eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly from a young age, you likely will live a longer, healthier life. And if you improve your company bit by bit by making small changes, those results will pay dividends for years.

The bad side of the spectrum compounds the same way but with opposite results.

If you let a small negative deviation occur and remain in place, it can lead to larger negative effects. And there is a term for it: normalization of deviance.

Sociologist Diane Vaughan coined the term when studying the events leading up to the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion and defined it as a human phenomena in which individuals and teams deviate from what is known to be an acceptable performance standard until the adopted way of practice becomes the new norm in the absence of failures. Consider being less diligent with:

  • Tying off
  • Fall protection
  • Ladder safety
  • Driving the speed limit
  • Fire safety
  • Material handling
  • Installation practices

“Oh, don’t worry about that; we’ve never had any issues,” may be said in conjunction with skipping some stated rule for an easier, faster path.

The more distant or rare the negative outcome, the more likely deviance can occur.

“I’ve never fallen from a roof; I’m fine not tying off this one time.”

“We’re good on safety, so we don’t need to worry about ladder safety this time.”

“We’ve never had an inspection go south with this unconventional screw pattern; it’s fine.”

Right now, there probably is a young crew member on some job site doing something unsafely or wrong because it’s all he or she knows. The crew member got to that point over a long period of time and possibly is unaware things could or should be different, better or safer.

If you value your company, ensure it never gets too far afield; otherwise, you run the risk of having two workers say “What’s fall protection?!” when asked about it someday.

Then you, like the frog, are cooked.



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