IT and the Broken Window Effect

I've returned to various childhood homes and found neighborhoods once characterized by white picket fences, station wagons and small shops transformed into rough, rundown and unsafe areas. These transformations did not happen overnight. They were very gradual,

involving a process that law enforcement has dubbed the "broken windows effect." The same thing can happen in a business or your personal life.

Imagine a perfect Lake Wobegon neighborhood, where everything is above average. One day, a baseball goes through a window, and the owner decides not to reglaze right away. Then, because that house looks a bit shabby, a neighbor leaves a junked car on the street. Then a bit of graffiti isn't cleaned up. Folks let garbage pile up in yards. The disorder gives rise to discourtesy and, eventually, crime.

For IT organizations, the broken window effect can take root when management begins to tolerate downtime, constant work-arounds and broken processes. The more management turns a blind eye to problems, the more problems crop up.

During the Giuliani administration, New York City set out to counter the broken window effect. Some of its initiatives, like banning squeegee-wielding windshield washers from busy intersections, were controversial. But a zero-tolerance attitude started to take hold, and the crime rate declined remarkably.

I'm promoting the same attitude in my IT organization. All downtime is investigated within hours, and a full report is issued at our weekly change-control board meeting. The meeting is not punitive; it is a learning environment for all of my technical managers. We try to find out whether the failure was in a process, training, policy, planning or life-cycle maintenance.

By examining every incident when it occurs and building a culture that encourages constant improvement based on the sharing of experiences, we ensure that broken windows are fixed and that recurrences are rare.

The change-control board was created after a catastrophic network collapse in 2002. At that time, we identified several aspects of the organization that needed improvement. For example, downtime details weren't shared among all groups; we had silos of technical knowledge; we tended to work around and patch rather than identify and correct root causes of problems; and we weren't planning projects as a coordinated whole, with all services -- applications, networks, servers, storage, desktops -- considered components of a single, comprehensive implementation.

The change-control board is so rigorous that even I can get into trouble. I recently implemented an update to a health information exchange application and did not discuss it with the board. I assumed there were no infrastructure implications -- even though the application exchanges data outside our firewall and involves databases, integration engines and application teams. My next leadership meeting included an overview of all our health information exchange projects for all IT stakeholders.

I also try to address the broken window effect on an individual level. I erase all e-mails older than 90 days and all files older than one year. (It's rare that an issue has not been resolved after 90 days or someone requests a file older than a year.) I replace my laptop and BlackBerry every two years. I keep no paper of any kind in my office and very little in my home. (All my reading materials are digital.)

Whether it's your home, neighborhood or office, stay vigilant for the broken window effect, and you'll keep everyone engaged in renewal.

John D. Halamka is CIO at CareGroup Healthcare System, CIO and associate dean for educational technology at Harvard Medical School, chairman of the New England Health Electronic Data Interchange Network, chairman of the national Healthcare Information Technology Standards Panel and a practicing emergency physician. You can contact him at jhalamka@caregroup.harvard.edu.

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