The Normalization of Deviance


When I visited Seattle for the first time back in the 80’s I was somewhat amused by the signs on Interstate 5 warning that you’ve entered the apple maggot quarantine area.   I had no idea what an apple maggot was but I had a pretty good idea that I didn’t want to get caught bringing any of them into the state!

Years later, long after I had made Seattle my home, I was picking up a friend from the airport and was a little startled when he commented about one of those signs.  It startled me a bit because I didn’t realize the signs were still there.  Somewhere along the way I’d stopped noticing the ubiquitous warnings I once had thought were so odd.   They had become so “normal” that at some point in time I had just started filtering them out even though they were still there faithfully doing their job  – defending the region’s apples from slimy invaders.  They had more or less become invisible to me.

This same thing happens in business operations all the time.  The weird or unusual can become so “normal” that we no longer notice because no consequences resulted from the initial occurrences.  This is a phenomenon that can lead to the accumulation of quality issues and extensive customer dissatisfaction or even catastrophe.  IT departments are particularly notorious for making their customers ignore or work around technical issues or limitations.  Often they’re better at explaining these things away than addressing the issues themselves.  Sometimes these things are even given cute names which strangely legitimize their inevitability (think BSD: Blue Screen of Death).

I’m talking about nuisances and productivity killers like painfully long boot up times, random error messages, erratic system behavior, bad IVR’s, three or four mouse clicks to do things that should only require one or two, cumbersome work flows, convoluted request processes and so much more.  Just like with those strange signs on I-5, we stop noticing these workplace issues and get used to them.  They become “normal.”   But, we overlook them at our own peril because customers are becoming more and more insistent upon proactive attention to these things and more.

This phenomenon was labeled as the “normalization of deviance” by sociologist Diane Vaughan in her investigation of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster where known issues were dismissed or rationalized away until they resulted in an enormous system failure.

So, what is the key to ensuring the abnormal doesn’t become normal?  It starts with a focus on measuring service excellence and productivity from the customer’s perspective and holding yourself accountable.

  1. Measure the things users care about in order to ensure you’re focused on the things that really matter most.
  2. Relentlessly seek customer feedback—Embrace their issues. Don’t explain them away.
  3. Establish aggressive but realistic improvement goals and align rewards and recognition with the targets to incent the right behaviors.
  4. Make it clear that standing still with quality is the same as moving backwards.
  5. Create a culture that demands constant improvement, allows for revealing problems without incrimination or penalty and takes folks out of their comfort zone making them confront problems and issues before they ever become invisible.