Can Purchasing Use Some Aspects of Broken-Windows Theory?

By Dr. Tom DePaoli

Broken-windows theory is primarily used in law enforcement. It is not a complex or very complicated approach in concept. When a neighborhood starts to show disorder, decay or even minor crimes occur, the police force acts aggressively to prevent further disorder and increases in crime. Then significant statistical analysis recommends where and how to deploy police resources. More enlightened law enforcement also tries to improve its personal connection, presence and understanding of the neighborhood at risk. This is to help uncover the root causes of the decline. Town hall and community meetings are used to listen to and solve neighborhood issues.

Can purchasing use any elements of this theory to be more effective? Yes, it can. Unfortunately, many organizations are not empowering employees, quite the opposite, they are ignoring them or at war with them.

In my most recent book, Broken Windows Management in Business, I state,

“The analogy is this. In many cities of the country there’s a fear of the streets especially if there’s disorder and things are in disarray. In many organizations there is a fear of management. No small part of this is due to employees not understanding the actions of management….Prevention of disorder and actually fixing things that employees say are wrong; goes a very long way in establishing trust and credibility with management.”

The empowerment aspects of the broken-windows theory require taking the time to listen to what employees want fixed and their issues. Fixing what is broke, no matter how minor, expeditiously and showing meaningful progress is critical. This requires a management commitment, but purchasing can contribute by ensuring that its suppliers can perform under pressure and quickly. Purchasing can also provide the resources to employees and maintenance personnel to easily fix the problems that they have identified. By providing a quick uncomplicated way to enable employees to handle such repair transactions on their own, purchasing can insure that it is not a barrier to fixing issues but rather a catalyst.

Purchasing can also encourage the use of quick process improvement tools. In one of my previous blogs I noted that purchasing should employ and lead rapid process improvement tools like kaizens and some principles of lean. In fact the 5S concept can be used to help create order out of disorder much like the core principles of broken windows theory.

In 5S the five steps are as follows (Courtesy of the Kaizen Institute):

  • Sort: Sort out and separate that which is needed and not needed in the area.
  • Straighten: Arrange items that are needed so that they are ready and easy to use. Clearly identify locations for all items so that anyone can find them and return them once the task is completed.
  • Shine: Clean the workplace and equipment on a regular basis in order to maintain standards and identify defects.
  • Standardize: Revisit the first three of the 5S on a frequent basis and confirm the condition of the Gemba using standard procedures.
  • Sustain: Keep to the rules to maintain the standard and continue to improve every day.

In summary, although purchasing cannot make the corporate-wide decision to implement the principles of broken-windows management, purchasing can play a strong role in facilitating a broken-windows approach to management. I remain convinced that fixing a company’s broken windows, or listening to employees’ issues and fixing the issues quickly, does more for management credibility and trust, than any other approach.

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