Broken windows on the ground floor

In the context of a business, a broken window can be anything from worn carpet, to an incorrect menu, to broken links on your webpage. Broken windows in your business are not serious in and of themselves, but they indicate to customers that there may be a bigger problem with the core elements of the business:

  • A customer walking into a doctor’s surgery with worn carpet might start to wonder when the surgical instruments were last replaced.
  • A customer at a restaurant with an outdated menu might wonder how much care the chef takes when selecting or storing fresh ingredients.
  • Someone looking for a new electricity supplier might decide one company would not be reliable in fixing faults because their website contains too many broken links.

Broken windows occur at all levels of an organisation. This week, in our second article on the subject of broken windows in business, we look at the broken windows that may occur at the floor level of your organisation.

In many businesses, the bottom level of the organisation will represent the most likely area for broken windows to exist. Staff are less experienced, are performing a more variable range of activities, and have more direct contact with customers than at other levels of management.

The kinds of broken windows found at the bottom level of an organisation are also highly variable:

  • A high-end clothing store with poorly-groomed sales staff.
  • An Australian-based telecommunications company with customer service staff who don’t speak English fluently.
  • A department store where staff spend more time talking to each other than to customers.
  • An insurance company whose customer service staff are unaware of changes in the company’s policies.
  • A travel agency whose staff have never been overseas.
  • A five-star hotel whose staff don’t know which newspaper you prefer, even after your fifth visit in six months.

How do you know where the broken windows are in your business?

The best way to establish where there are opportunities for broken windows to occur is through a process known as Moments of Truth mapping.

Moments of Truth as a business concept originated with Jan Carlzon, CEO of Scandinavian Airlines from 1981 to 1994. Carlzon took over Scandinavian Airlines when it was losing US$17m a year and had a reputation for being one of the least punctual airlines in Europe.

Carlzon began mapping the organisation’s Moments of Truth: the interactions between customer and airline that allowed the customer to form a lasting perception of the airline’s quality of service. By focusing on each Moment of Truth and how to improve a customer’s experience, Carlzon turned the airline around and within twelve months the US$17m loss had become a US$54m profit.

Carlzon is quoted as saying 50,000 Moments of Truth occurred every single day at Scandinavian Airlines. You may have a similar number at your organisation. Clearly, trying to fix all of them at once is not possible. The next step, therefore, is to assess how important each Moment of Truth is to attaining your own business goal, and how well your organisation is performing for each one.

Those Moments of Truth that are very important and show poor performance are the ones that need attention right away. Conversely, if high levels of performance are attained for Moments of Truth that are unimportant, you may be over-servicing your customers.

Through a process comparing performance with importance, you can prioritise the most critical Moments of Truth and attend to them before they become broken windows.

So, having found your broken windows, how do you fix them? Broken windows can be attributed to a failing in one or more of three aspects of business: people, process or performance management.


Hiring the wrong people, or failing to provide them with the right training, can cause broken windows when they base their workplace behaviour on their own experiences and expectations instead of appropriate workplace norms.

A receptionist at a five-star boutique hotel may greet guests with “G?day, how ya goin?” because that’s what he or she is used to in his or her everyday life. Without the appropriate training, the new staff member has no opportunity to learn what is expected.


Poorly written, nonexistent and unworkable business processes contribute to broken windows because staff will do whatever they think is right in a situation rather than what is desired.

The receptionist mentioned above may not have been hired at all if a proper recruitment process had been in place, assessing the candidate’s suitability for the role rather than just their availability.

Performance Management

Even with the right people working with good processes, occasionally there will still be problems. Broken windows can also be caused by poor performance management.

Should the hotel receptionist mentioned above continue to greet customers inappropriately, his or her manager should step in to coach and/or counsel the employee about appropriate standards of behaviour. If necessary, the receptionist’s employment should be terminated.

Broken windows only become serious problems when they are tolerated for significant periods, enabling a customer to form new expectations about the organisation. Walking into a fast food restaurant and seeing a messy counter will only lead to customer defections if it is obvious that no effort is being made to rectify it.

Effective performance management is the key to ensuring that broken windows do not remain broken for long.


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