When saying “We’ve never had problems before” becomes a problem
It was an unusually cold morning on January 28, 1986. Roger Boisjoly sat at his desk inconsolable and unable to speak. Earlier that morning he had provided hard evidence that the O-rings on the Space Shuttle Challenger would fail. He had pleaded with NASA and Morton Thiokol to delay the shuttle launch. His warnings were disregarded, the Challenger was launched, and as the Challenger exploded, 7 lives were lost.
A tragic repeat occurred 17 years later. A NASA engineer had pleaded that photos be taken of the shuttle Columbia prior to its re-entry. He was convinced that insulation dislodged during take-off had damaged one of the wings. His warnings were ignored, the shuttle disintegrated upon re-entry, and 7 lives were again lost.
Why did these accidents occur? Why were the warnings disregarded? Psychologists refer to a phenomenon of “normalization of deviance.” In simple terms, normalization of deviance describes a situation in which an unacceptable practice has gone on for so long without a serious problem or disaster that this deviant practice actually becomes the accepted way of doing things.
Prior to 1986, there had been O-ring failures on the Challenger with no disastrous consequences. And prior to 2003 insulation had come loose on multiple launches, again with no ill effect. So these things moved into the realm of “acceptable.”
It’s easy for us to think of ways that we working for J J White Inc. can be overcome by this mentality. “I’ve stood on the top step of that step ladder countless times and never fallen.” “I’ve deviated from that procedure many times without a problem.” “I’ve texted while I’m driving, and never even had a close call.” And before long, we assume that we’re doing the right thing because “We’ve never had a problem before.”
The question to ask is not “Have I ever had a problem before?” but rather “Is this a fundamentally safe practice?”
We need to exercise constant vigilance to insure that wrong behaviors don’t become acceptable simply because “we’ve never had problems before.”