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Excellence Fatigue: The Normalization of Defects

I am pleased to post a brief, but relevant article today from our new president at Growing Leaders: Steve Moore. I have known Steve for over three decades and he is one of the finest leaders I know. He now leads the operations at Growing Leaders, bringing a wealth of experience and insight from his career. Enjoy.

If you’ve talked with programmers about the problems that come with the release of new software, you may be familiar with the running joke they use in response to early user complaints: “That’s a feature, not a bug.”

In sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek language, software engineers are simply relabeling something that isn’t working properly, a bug, as an intentionally designed feature of the program. Of course, pretending a problem doesn’t exist will only exacerbate negative customer feedback. You can call a bug a feature all you want but there’s another saying that applies here: if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, well, it’s a duck.

Every industry learns to tolerate recurring problems rather than fix them. It is part of the cost/benefit analysis that is done up and down the organizational hierarchy all the time. This willingness to expect, tolerate and assimilate recurring problems into the workflow and operations of an organization is technically referred to as the normalization of defects.

The highest profile example of normalizing a defect comes from NASA. Foam insulation had broken off the launch vehicle on nearly every shuttle launch. These foam pieces became virtual projectiles that hit the underbelly of the shuttle. It happened so consistently that it was eventually viewed as a normal consequence of the launch process. The foam was not designed to break free and hit the shuttle underbelly. But it happened so consistently that it became a feature, not a bug. It was the normalization of a defect.

Abnormal Expectations

Managers, scientists and engineers at NASA stopped asking serious, rigorous questions about this defect. They fully expected it to occur and began to view it as an unintended but normal part of the launch process. Eventually, the space shuttle Columbia, having been struck by a piece of foam the size of a briefcase, was damaged badly enough that the thermal protection system failed causing it to disintegrate upon reentry. The shuttle was destroyed, and an entire crew was lost, a tragedy that shook the agency out of its complacency.

We are tempted to tolerate and assimilate recurring problems into normal operations in the following circumstances:

1. We are still successful. Columbia had its first mission in April 1981 and flew twenty-six other successful missions before the disaster occurred. The temptation leaders face is to accept suboptimal conditions so long as the overall results are acceptable.

2. The impact is tolerable. Once a defect has been normalized the urgency to address it goes away. When it became clear Columbia was again struck by foam several people within NASA pushed to get pictures of the breached wing in orbit. The Department of Defense was reportedly prepared to use its orbital spy cameras to get a closer look. However, NASA officials in charge declined the offer.

3. The workaround is doable. After a successful mission the Shuttle underwent routine maintenance lasting for months to prepare for a future launch. Repairs associated with pieces of foam striking the underbelly of the Shuttle were part of the workaround.

4. The cost/benefit is acceptable. Quality control experts often ask the question, “Why do we have time to do it again, but we didn’t have time to do it right the first time?” We convince ourselves the time repeatedly spent on a work around is somehow better than investing a larger amount of energy to fix a problem now.

Thankfully the stakes associated with normalizing a defect are rarely as high as the Columbia tragedy. But every industry, every organization, every school, every team is vulnerable to excellence fatigue, where recurring problems that don’t appear to be debilitating are eventually normalized.

Shifting Perspective

One of the danger signs associated with normalizing defects is comparing suboptimal performance with disaster and rationalizing the status quo because it is so much better than the worse case scenario. But that’s the wrong perspective. The better point of view is comparing the suboptimal status quo with excellence and doubling down on a commitment to deliver the best possible experience for stakeholders.

So, here are some questions for you and your team to answer:

  • What systems do you currently employ that seem a little clunky or less than optimal?
  • Have you experienced near-misses or near emergencies that could have sabotaged your objectives?
  • If you started over on your mission, would you attempt it the way you are currently?

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Excellence Fatigue: The Normalization of Defects