Monday, January 28, 2013

The Normalization of Deviance (If It Can Happen to NASA, It Can Happen to You)

The space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986.
Many of you remember where you were when the space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after lift-off in January of 1986. I remember where I was, and that I felt sick to my stomach. The cause of the catastrophe was determined to be the failure of the O-ring gaskets on one of the solid rocket boosters. In her book, The Challenger Launch Decision, sociologist Dr. Diane Vaughan examines why NASA allowed the launch to occur when they had overwhelming information that this was exactly what was going to happen. It is called the normalization of deviance, and it is deadly.

The normalization of deviance is defined as: “The gradual process through which unacceptable practice or standards become acceptable. As the deviant behavior is repeated without catastrophic results, it becomes the social norm for the organization.” Seven years after Dr. Vaughan’s book was published, it struck again. The shuttle Columbia came apart due to damage in its heat shield as it was re-entering the earth’s atmosphere, and seven more astronauts died. NASA had fallen prey to the normalization of deviance for a second time. Shuttles returning with damaged heat shields had become the norm.

Columbia is another example of the "normalization of deviance."

It’s not just NASA. It is the BP oil spill, the Upper Big Branch Coal mine, and it is in the health care system. It is in public safety too. It is when our first responders go for speed and efficiency, and they give up safety and accuracy. And the deviation slowly begins. It is when the shortcut gradually becomes the norm. We have all seen this in our organizations, and frequently we are lucky. But then luck runs out (or there are one or two complicating factors), people get hurt, and we wonder how “they” got that far off track. If it happened to NASA, it can happen to you.

The normalization of deviance will be a component of the all-day police track for the 2013 Loss Control Workshops. These workshops will be offered on the following dates and locations: March 26 in Mahnomen, March 27 in Alexandria, April 3 in Marshall, April 4 in Mankato, April 10 in Duluth, April 16 in Rochester, April 18 in Brooklyn Park, April 23 in St. Cloud, and April 25 in St. Paul. For registration and workshop information, visit


                                            Responder Safety = Public Safety

Up next time: “A Report From the Minnesota Fire Chief’s Association Fire Officers School”

In the meantime, stay safe and be careful.

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