Zero tolerance and the staff kitchen – Great Leadership Idea No 60

by | 4 May 2011 | Leadership Ideas

If the tap in the staff kitchen is broken and nobody mends it, colleagues quite quickly begin to draw a number of very negative conclusions—in particular, that management isn’t particularly bothered about the welfare or comfort of the staff and that, since management don’t fix things that are broken in the staff’s day-to-day environment,  it is not reasonable to expect staff to worry about things that are broken elsewhere in the organisation: like pricing policies.

Broken Windows Theory

In a famous paper called ‘Broken Windows’, the academics and political scientists, James Q. Wilson & George L. Kellling set out the idea that a failure to mend small things in communal area sends out a signal that nobody cares. Even normally well-behaved and law-abiding members of the community may join in destructive behaviour as things begin to degenerate.

This led to the policing policy of ‘zero tolerance’: cracking down on even minor misdemeanours to send a message to the community that people did care.

“Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all of the rest of the windows will soon be broken. This is as true in nice neighbourhoods as in run-down ones.

“Window-breaking does not necessarily occur on a large scale because some areas are inhabited by determined window-breakers whereas others are populated by window-lovers; rather, one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no-one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing . . .

“Untended property becomes fair game for people out for fun or plunder, and even for people who ordinarily would not dream of doing such things and who probably consider themselves law-abiding.”

The un-mended tap in the staff kitchen

When Richard Baker took up his role as CEO of the Boots Group in 2003, he started work at 7 am each day in his first weeks by visiting three Boots stores in quick succession; later he spent two whole days on the shop floor at a branch in Loughborough.

At every opportunity, he asked staff for their opinions as to what was working and what was not. The exercise gave him twenty-one significant ideas with which to begin his stewardship.

Some ideas, like a member of staff’s insight that some Boot’s prices were so high that staff bought them from other outlets despite their staff discount persuaded him to review pricing policies.

He also learned that the tap in the staff canteen had stopped working years before and never been fixed.

Mending a broken tap was an important symbol of a wider problem. ‘For years,’ says Baker, ‘Boots invested any profits in other parts of the group but not in the stores. Everything looked neglected. We reversed this and invested in the stores. Our colleagues saw we were doing the right things and the mood in the company quickly improved.’

Little things matter

Little things matter—to a surprsing extent. Colleagues may be unwilling to embrace major new strategies or initiatives simply because some minor but significant aspect of their working life convinces them that they are not valued.

Fixing the small things has a disproportionate effect. A small amount of effort and expenditure convinces people that the leadership does, in fact, care.


Zero Tolerance and the Staff Kitchen  is further explored in  100 Great Leadership Ideas.


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