Switzerland Style Attention

Picture of Adam Bahret
Adam Bahret
Screen Shot 2019 12 08 at 5.58.50 PM

I’m just back from a week long trip to Switzerland.  I was there developing a new Failure Mode Effects Analysis (FMEA) course for the “R is 4 Reliability” education series.  If you have ever been to Switzerland you found that there are several things that are striking about this place.  The natural beauty is unparalleled. Just about every view from every angle is of a beautiful snow capped mountain that has a lake or stream connected at its base. It’s never got old to look up and be viewing a real life postcard.

The second thing you notice is that everything is perfect.  That’s really the only way to describe it.  Everything works perfectly.  The trains are on time and perfectly clean, every clock is synchronized, every door handle makes a perfect and very satisfying motion.  Enjoying observing how culture affects behavior, as I do, I started to pay attention to other indicators of how this is possible.  So I paid closer attention.

I noticed that everything is cleaned all the time.  It’s a simple small thing, but nonetheless was a very consistent behavior. Things that in the US would only be cleaned every year, or never, are cleaned here every day.  I observed that early in the morning that chairs in the lobbies of buildings, university building, public places, and business are cleaned.  I don’t mean brushed off.  I mean fully cleaned, the legs were wiped down and the cushions vacuumed.  It looked like the entire world had disinfection standard similar to a medical environment.  Anything that was displaced is back in it’s exact specified location the next morning.  Almost as if you were in a virtual world and hit “reset.”.

Every pubic walk way is perfectly clean, every brick is in place, and not a single one is cracked. and maintenance people roam all public areas and ensure everything works correctly.  What I did notice is completely absent is the presence of the police. I asked one of my hosts about this and he said the police greatest risk is dying of boredom. The maintenance people were out in public spaces at about the same level of manpower as we would have police in the US.  They were policing the dirt and functionality, not society.

What I have concluded is that all this perfection is driven by constant awareness and immediate action, i.e. maintenance.   How could anything follow a degradation curve if it was being maintained before it even showed degradation?  To further investigate this I asked about the ages of some of these beautiful wood buildings.  They all look brand new, absolutely perfect.  These aren’t show buildings that are restored by the local historical society.  I’m talking about buildings I found near a train track in a nondescript area.  Some of these buildings are 700 years old.  But by simply performing daily inspection, cleaning and maintenance no wood has been exposed to rot and no shingle has been missing. There has never been a drop of water that leaked in and damaged plaster.  Plaster will still be there in 50,000 years if it stays completely dry. It doesn’t’ wear out by stresses from it’s base function.

What would happen if you included a cleaning, inspection, maintenance process that was at a higher frequency than you have now for your process or product in the field?  Maybe it’s not a perfect business model to go to the extent of wiping the legs down on a chair in a lobby that no one sits in but… Would you have a net benefit over a multi year time period with an increase in your frequency of attention to system or process health? I bet you would.

I also can’t help but comment on a thought I had regarding the presence of maintenance people instead of police in public.  Was there a correlation between what appeared to be an even exchange of  city employee roles in the day to day life of the citizens?

There is an theory here that may be in effect that is worth discussing.   The principal is called the “broken window theory.” It states that an abandoned building with a single broken window will endure more vandalism then an abandoned building with no broken windows.  People treat an environment in accordance with how it appears.  If the building appears to be in good health, even though abandoned, even vandals will treat it with more respect.  But once it appears to be degraded or defective people feel comfortable abusing it further. This theory expands to state that the “in order” appearance will even mitigate more serious crimes in the environment.

This happens even in my own house. I know I am much more likely to leave a dirty dish in the sink if there is one already there. If the sink is completely clean I am much more likely to rinse and place my dirty dish in the dishwasher. Who ever cleaned that last dish got an extended benefit from that small bit of labor.   It then is not to far fetched to conclude that by adding something as simple as a higher frequency inspection process to the most important aspects of your business tjat it could have a multiplicative effect.  Seems worth experimenting with.


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