Broken windows in line management

In any organisation, line managers are in the best position to maintain control of your everyday business processes and policies. They are in a unique spot, between employees and middle management. They are required to interpret the wishes of middle and senior management and pass them on to the people who do the work. They also distil data and pass it back up to middle and senior management to inform decision-making processes.

This unique position is both a blessing and a curse. Whilst a good line manager is capable of spotting disasters and averting them before they happen, a poor one may actually cause them.

The most obvious broken windows in your business are probably at floor level. Maybe one of your salespeople looks permanently dishevelled. Perhaps your counter staff never clean up properly. Here at Change Factory, we receive our share of cold calls looking to sell something, and the calls from one particular supplier always begin with: “G’day mate, how yez goin???” That’s a broken window if ever I heard one.

But what is it that causes these broken windows? In our work, we’ve found there are typically four causes, and all of them are line management issues.

Lack of Knowledge

Employees who don’t know what the correct course of action is cannot be expected to do the right thing. Consider your own business when answering the following questions:

  • Do you inform your staff about their roles and the expectations that will be placed upon them before they begin their job, or do you expect them to learn it on the job, picking it up as they go along?
  • How timely are the information flows in your business? Do people get the information they need to make decisions before the decisions need to be made? How old is the information upon which your employees rely when making decisions?
  • Is there a gap between the knowledge possessed by line managers and the knowledge possessed by employees? Do line managers jealously guard that knowledge, or do they share it?
  • How hard is it for employees to access information? Do you have information (such as standard operating procedures) buried in piles of meaningless text, or stored on an intranet page that is frequently inaccessible?

Lack of Skill

Employees may also make mistakes if they lack the appropriate skills. If your recruitment processes aren’t closely linked to your organisational goals, you may find yourself with staff who are poorly suited to their roles or to your organisation in general. Inappropriate training or a lack of training also leads to employees operating without the appropriate skills.

Skills need to be drilled, either by way of specific coaching sessions or on-the-job coaching. Have you ever heard of a footballer learning to kick a ball without actually kicking the ball? Yet much skill-based business training is left to PowerPoint sessions rather than using line managers to coach the necessary skills.

Whilst more of a broken window for middle and senior managers, putting line managers in place who cannot or do not want to coach is certain to result in under-skilled staff.


Employees do not always have the authority to make the decisions that the customer expects them to be able to make. Not having that authority means employees hand off decisions to more senior staff. Those hand-offs generally cause the customer to feel that there is a lack of concern being shown for them and their problem.

Line managers – and middle and senior managers for that matter – who refuse to give authority to act along with responsibility for a process to employees immediately create one broken window. However decision hand-offs tend to have a domino effect, creating several subsequent broken windows.


Regardless of how well you recruit, train, inform and empower your staff, there is one lynchpin in the entire structure that can bring everything crashing down, which is an inappropriately high level of tolerance being shown by your line managers.

When poor behaviour is continually tolerated, several things happen.

Firstly, that poor behaviour becomes common, because employees are able to ‘get away with it’.

Secondly, any good employees you might have may lapse into the same poor behaviour, because they see it is no longer necessary to do the right thing.

Thirdly, any good employees who don’t lapse into poor behaviour will quite frequently leave, because their efforts are not rewarded and they feel like they are being ignored.

This frequently leaves you in a position where all your good staff have left and all your remaining staff behave poorly – an instant recipe for broken windows.


A critical element to solving any chronic business problem is a robust and effective performance management system.

However, without knowing the causes of the broken windows we are trying to fix, we will have difficulty in aligning our performance management system to organisational goals. So how can you accurately determine the real causes of your broken windows?

Ishikawa Diagrams

Pioneered by legendary quality management guru Kaoru Ishikawa, an Ishikawa Diagram (also known as a fishbone diagram or cause-and-effect diagram) allows relationships to be drawn between an effect being investigated (in this case, a broken window), and the causes of that effect. If you search the internet you will find literally hundreds of examples. Computer programs like Microsoft Visio even have the capability to draw Ishikawa Diagrams.

Ishikawa Diagrams become even more powerful when combined with the “Five Whys”. Put simply, to determine the root cause of a problem or effect, one must ask “Why?” five times. For each input on the Ishikawa Diagram, ask the five whys. Here is a well-known example using the Washington Monument:

  • The Washington Monument is deteriorating. Why is it deteriorating?
  • The Washington Monument is deteriorating because harsh chemicals are being used to clean it. Why are harsh chemicals used?
  • Harsh chemicals are being used because they are needed to clean off the many bird droppings. Why are there so many bird droppings?
  • There are so many bird droppings because there are a lot of birds eating the spiders that live on the monument. Why are there so many spiders living on the monument?
  • There are many spiders because gnats gather at dusk around the monument. Why are there so many gnats?
  • There are many gnats because they gather around the monument when the lights are turned on at dusk.

So the root cause of the deterioration of the monument is because the lights are turned on at dusk. The solution? Turn the lights on half an hour later when the gnats are no longer active.

To get to root cause of your broken windows at line management level you can use the following general approach.

Start with your failure to reach your goal at the end of the diagram. Put Tolerance of Poor Performance, Lack of Knowledge, Lack of Skill and Lack of Authority onto the diagram as the four main inputs. Then ask the five whys to find the root cause of your inputs (broken windows) at line management level.

Eliminating or at least reducing broken windows at line management level has multiplier effect as employees are more likely to take responsibility when they have the knowledge, skills and authority to do the job, and they know poor performance and poor behaviour will not be tolerated.


Want more?

Other articles in this series:

Comments are closed.