Creeping normalcy

  • Published
  • By Fred Rauch
  • 341st Space Wing Antiterrorism Officer
You are what you repeatedly do. Excellence is not an event -- it is a habit ... Aristotle
You don't do things right once in a while, you do them right all the time ... Vince Lombardi

Very rarely does "stuff happen," especially to disciplined and well trained organizations. Things go wrong, sometimes very wrong with dire consequences, when usually professional Airmen stray from authorized standards. How many times have our commanders stressed attention to details? You've done this task a hundred times, what can go wrong? Countless accidents have occurred because of a skipped checklist step or a moment of inattention. There is a simple answer and that is creeping normalcy.

Creeping normalcy refers to the way major, and often unacceptable, change can be accepted as normal if it happens slowly, in unnoticed increments. Certainly all creeping normalcy is not bad and not all of it is unintentional. Nonetheless, nearly every aircraft accident was unintentional resulting in calamitous results. Therefore, for the purposes of this article, I'll focus on unintentional creeping normalcy leading to unacceptable outcomes.

The parable about the frog in boiling water illustrates creeping normalcy very well. If you throw a frog into a pan of boiling water, it will immediately jump out, but if you put a frog in a pan of warm water and gradually heat it to boiling, the frog will stay in the pan until it boils to death. The frog was accepting the change in his environment to a catastrophic conclusion because it happened slowly in such a way as he did not notice. The relevant questions are how does this happen and how can we prevent it?

Complacency plays a big part in creeping normalcy. This can be a result of many "pulls and pushes." We are living in a time of great change in the Air Force, some of it driven by innovation, some out of necessity. As we perform our daily duties we are challenged by a number of issues. There are fewer resources (dollars and manpower) to do the same amount of work. We see increased requirements through unfunded headquarters mandates. Lack or failure of leadership at one or more levels (usually many levels) contributes. None of these are valid excuses. Out of this environment we make our first step towards creeping normalcy. Somebody, either through a conscious decision, mistake or lack of caring, compromises the standard ever so slightly. It is not noticed, supervisors fail to correct the error, or rationalize as satisfactory or ignore it. This is eventually accepted as normal -- a new baseline is established. From there it happens again and again. Each step, each compromise, is not far from the new baseline. However, over time the usually professional team is operating very far from the approved standards.

Can this happen at Malmstrom? It already has to some degree. Does your unit take full advantage of exercises to test established procedures and plans? Or, does your unit or work center simulate as much as possible? "When it happens for real we'll do it right." (How do you know?) Is your unit conducting the daily random antiterrorism measures as directed and intended? Have you "pencil-whipped" a training or self-inspection requirement because you "didn't have time" to accomplish it correctly. Have you failed to correct a problem -- just walked right by it -- no matter how minor? Are you using "field procedures" with the intent of following the checklists when stan/eval or quality control is watching? If you answered any of the above questions with a yes, then you may be contributing to creeping normalcy. What are the solutions?

The first and most important solution is leadership. When I say leadership, I mean at all levels from the most junior Airman up. Supervisors, crew commanders, flight chiefs and commanders need to ensure the personnel under their charge are properly equipped, trained and do the tasks correctly without compromise. No one should accept less than a proper job and the checklists and procedures need to be followed -- "nothing short of right is right." Do not allow local, unapproved procedures to be used. Challenge your co-workers when they stray from approved procedures. My intention is not to create a game of "gotcha." This can be achieved very effectively with a measure of diplomacy. As leaders, you should create an atmosphere where subordinates and co-workers can hold each other to high standards without creating an adversarial environment. In addition, commanders and supervisors must lead by personal example as commanders set the tone of their unit. It is not important unless commanders make it important. Above all others, leaders need to be technically proficient and ensure compliance of authorized procedures. This is very simple; it's at the very heart of leadership.

The second solution to stopping creeping normalcy is to live our core values of Service, Excellence, and Integrity. Even the most junior of our organizations can contribute to the demise of creeping normalcy by knowing their jobs and doing them correctly and to the best of their ability every day. Do what you know is right every day even though no one is watching. Make excellence a daily habit. Pay attention to details. Don't assume somebody else did a task or will catch a mistake; therefore, you can take a shortcut "because it doesn't matter" or "it's redundant." A moment of inattention can mean mission failure or even worse, death, or serious injury. It can also mean the loss of decades of public confidence that is very difficult to regain.