This story, that I found on Bob Sutton’s blog, illustrates how determining what is actually driving behaviour (in this case workplace theft), can lead to astoundingly simple (and cheap) solutions. In fact, as you’ll see in the story, the more expensive solutions (installing cameras) made the situation worse …
“This 2001 study was done by renowned researcher Gary Latham in a large sawmill (about 1000 hourly workers and 200 managers). He was called in to help management because employees were stealing about 1 million dollars in equipment years from the mill. There was a very strong union and imposing discipline was proving to be impossible. One story Latham tells is about a worker who was stopped by a supervisor because his tool boxes looked very heavy – in response, the union flooded the HR department with so many grievances that they begged the supervisor to back off; so supervisors adopted a “hear no evil, see no evil” approach to employees stealing as they were helpless to stop it anyway. As Latham did his interviews (under conditions where he promised anonymity), he realized that employees didn’t need most of the stuff they stole (like a 2000 pound piece of machinery called a “head ring”). They were doing to for thrill of it, because it was challenging and they wanted to brag to their buddies about it. Indeed, when management started talking about putting in surveillance cameras to catch the thieves, instead of being upset, workers got excited because the equipment would be so challenging to steal!
Working with management, Latham came up with a system to “kill the thrill.” First, they installed a library system where employees could “check-out” the same kind of equipment for personal use anytime. The effect was immediate, because it was no fun to steal anymore and bragging about stealing something that was free did not earn you prestige in the peer culture, theft drop to virtually zero immediately. It continued that way from then on (at east for three years until Latham published the article).
Second, in a perhaps even more astounding turn, management had an amnesty day – also following the library analogy – where employees were invited to return missing equipment without fear of punishment. Management said they assumed that anything being returned was as a favour to a friend and the employee had not stolen it. On that day, employees showed-up with one truckload after another of stolen stuff; and in fact, management had to extend the amnesty period, as truckload after truckload came in for days and days. Apparently, the root cause for returning stuff wasn’t the thrill; it was that workers (mostly men) were in trouble with their wives because the stolen stuff was taking up so much room in garages, storage sheds, and so on! And so they prevailed on their husbands to get rid of the stuff while they had a place to bring it.
Certainly, the thrill is not the main motive in many cases of theft, but I think Latham was brilliant in identifying the root cause in this case and coming-up (in concert with management) with a way to stop its motivating effect. Sure, from an ethical point of view, stealing is wrong (and a big subset of workers Latham interviewed did not steal for that reason), but this is a situation where management couldn’t punish effectively – but they did have some power of rules and practices, and used it very creatively. I also wonder, looking at this more broadly, how much human behaviour explained by the search for excitement among people who having boring jobs – and boring lives too.”
This story illustrates why we believe so strongly in the power of narrative to find the hidden dynamics and root causes of complex problems. There is no way they would have come to these insights by conducting a normal survey, and blindly applying industry security best practices (as I’m sure the cameras were) would have only made the problem worse, as it would not have addressed the actual root cause.