Normalization of Deviance

Normalization of Deviance

I think a lot.  I’m not boasting. I’m lamenting.

I have a mild case of attention deficit disorder (ADD).  For me, staying focused on an idea is a lot like trying to catch a canary.  Picture a fluttering, yellow canary in a living room.  Every once in a while I’m able to snatch it out of mid-flight, put it in a cage, sit back and watch it.  Study it.  Think about it.  Until another one stumbles in through an open window to take my attention away.

Such is my obsession with root-cause issues – and my learning of a concept called Normalization of Deviance (ND).

It started on a Saturday night, when Michelle, my wife of 26 years acquiesced to a “guy flick” and we were off to buttered popcorn, a Coke and a movie – “Deepwater Horizon.” It’s an engaging telling of the tragic, off-shore oil platform explosion in the Gulf in 2010 which killed 11 people and lead to the worst oil spill in history.

The story was gripping and tragic.  It was like watching a slow-motion train wreck.  I had the same sick feeling in my stomach as I do occasionally when talking to clients.

I remember sitting in on a meeting with a global chemical company as they discussed a tank lining project for the upcoming summer turnaround.  I was hawking my firms vendor-neutral approach and, after reviewing specifications, material selections, etc., I explained that there were serious flaws, which would lead, almost inevitably to either short, and/or long-term problems.

Their response was, basically, “We’re too far along the process now and we can’t afford to hire you.  I’m sure it’ll be fine.”

After coming home from the movie (and rescuing a local skunk who had his head stuck in a cup), I ravenously searched Google about the root cause of the Deepwater disaster.   Google pulled up a lot of technical data of what happened, but what I was really interested in was how these highly intelligent people allowed this largely preventable event to take place.

That’s when I stumbled upon the concept of Normalization of Deviance.

Diane Vaughn coined the phrase in 1996 in relation to the Challenger Disaster, and defined it as, “Social normalization of deviance means that people within the organization become so much accustomed to a deviation that they don’t consider it as deviant, despite the fact that they far exceed their own rules for the elementary safety.”

People will sometimes dismiss titles and names as unimportant, “What’s in a name?” they chide.  But names are important.

Really, really, important.  Because once you name something, you’ve identified it.  Once you’ve identified it, and can “see” it, you can fix it.

By being able to put a name to something, like Normalization of Deviance (N-Dev), I was able to identify dozens, perhaps, hundreds of examples of it.  And like a waterfall, or, perhaps more like Tetris pieces, dozens, perhaps hundreds of past situations neatly fell into this new category of N-Dev events.

The “necessity” of inspection services

Years ago, I wrote a blog about inspection services and inspectors, and posed the question, “Are we necessary?”

I think an excellent argument can be made that inspection services exist only because of an industrywide issue with N-Dev.

What else can a failure to abide by a specification be other than individuals and organizations becoming comfortable with doing so?  That’s pretty much the definition of N-Dev.  Deviation becoming normalized.  It has become normal NOT to follow the specification and, further, normal to have inspectors find those deficiencies – or at least try.  We’ve created an artificial cat and mouse game which has lead to an explosion of inspectors, of which many corrosion professionals feel are poorly trained.

All inspectors do, day in and day out, is report on deviations from the norm – the specification.  That’s it.

A systematic, cultural malady – two case studies

Case Study 1 – global entertainment company

I have met with many individuals who have behaved in a way that made no sense to me.  I now understand that these individuals are working in companies (social constructs) and have simply become, as quoted by Vaughn, “…so much accustomed to a deviation that they don’t consider it as deviant.”

A perfect example happened during a meeting I had with a global entertainment company.  I had been talking with my contact there for months trying to get a meeting.  Finally, one was set in Las Angeles with roughly a dozen individuals.

I remain under a very strict non-disclosure, but they have facilities all over the world which require constant painting and upkeep.

I had reviewed their paint choices and specifications months earlier – and thought this would be an easy sale.  We would clearly save them millions of dollars across the globe in a variety of fashions.  First, they had one facility in Japan that was using roughly 20% less paint and associated labor than other facilities.  So my bright idea (which anyone not in a social construct immersed in N-Dev would see) was to go there and figure out what they were doing differently.  And second, even more of a slam dunk, they were using dozens of different primers from different companies for exactly the same substrate – fiberglass.    So, identify one or two low-cost, high-quality suppliers, negotiate pricing based on increased sales, and poof, big savings.

There were other technical issues as well that were more complex.  Yet, at the end of the several-hour meeting, the head of design simply said, “Thanks for coming in, but we’re comfortable with how things are going.”

Case Study 2 – I wouldn’t have been believed it if I hadn’t seen it for myself

About 30 years ago, I began working in the family business (a ginormous mistake, and the fodder for a different blog).  And, at the time, we were lining the interior of underground gasoline storage tanks, mostly at gas stations.

I can think of nothing more commonly used and available, and as unbelievably dangerous as gasoline.  Depending on what internet source you choose to believe, it’s the equivalent of between 10 and 14 sticks of dynamite.   And in 1988, the Federal EPA required all underground storage tanks (USTs) be internally lined, cathodically protected or removed.  We were lining a boat-load of USTs ranging in size from 1,000 gallons up to 30,000.

At a typical gas station, the owner would pump out one tank as low as possible, and we would use a grounded, air-powered diaphragm pump to move the remainder into adjacent tanks. We would then hopscotch from one tank to the next.  When we got down to the liquid sludge and water (this was before alcohol-based fuels, which absorb water), we would pump the sludge into 55 gallons drums.

One morning, we ended up with several drums full of clean gasoline (I don’t remember why) and I was stunned, speechless and terrified when I watched as one of our guys dropped a small, blue, electric basement, sump pump right into a full, open-top 55 gallon drum of gasoline (complete with garden hose), and start to pump gas back into a tank.

I sprinted and about dove to the GFCI and tripped it.  My family member on the site scolded me, and, reset it.  We nearly came to blows as I tore the plug from the wall.

His response, “We’ve always done this, and it’s been fine.”  And then, to make matters worse, he insulted me for my “ignorance.”  “You’re new here.  You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

To this day, if you bring up the topic with my estranged family, they will still say that I overreacted and that it was fine.

They were victims of N-Dev.  They had done it so many times before, that this suicidal practice had become “normal.”

N Dev in corrosion mitigation procurement decisions

I partner with our clients on a daily basis striving to divine the best methods of addressing corrosion mitigation.  And over the years I’ve run into some of the most frustrating situations, and stubborn individuals.

Here’s one which I still have trouble wrapping my head around.

It was about 20 years ago when I was visiting a large corn processing facility.  They had a tank of some type which was large enough to drive a small front loader into – which is exactly what they did, roughly every eight years when they would completely remove, and replace, a coating system.

The tank was roughly 60’ diameter and maybe 40’ tall.  As I recall it was a waste water tank.  And every eight years they scheduled the complete removal and replacement of a fiberglass laminate system on the floor, and thick mil coating system on the walls.

The tank contained mostly water, with some trace amounts of other materials – not particularly challenging from a corrosion prevention perspective.

I owned a coating company at the time and thought this was a slam dunk.  What they were doing cost around $350,000 every 8 years or so.  I provided them with a quote for $125,000.00 and guaranteed the coating, unconditionally, for 10 years.  Unheard of, I know, but this was a large facility and we were trying to make an impression.  I was also confident that I had identified an optimal material, and we knew how to properly install coatings.

I was frustrated when the client wouldn’t return my calls (this was pre-email).  I finally called his boss who told me, “We’re going to stick with what we’re doing.  It’s working fine for us.”

I was speechless.  They were using a 20-year-old specification.  They were shutting down this tank for weeks every 8 years or so and wasting vast amounts of money.

Doing the wrong thing had become normal.

I’ve run into this type of thinking often – as I’m sure all of you had.  Until I saw the movie Deepwater Horizon and stumbled upon this concept of N-Dev, I attributed it to either stupidity, apathy or someone getting a kickback.

It wasn’t until I recently caged that canary that I recognized what this phenomenon was – Normalization of Deviation (N-Dev).

Examples are everywhere

Who drives the speed limit?  No one.  The fact that we don’t get tickets if we drive, say, only 10% over the speed limit, we won’t get a ticket.  This is N-Dev.  It’s normal to speed.

At the corn processing facility, overspending on a tank lining had become normal.  And the insidious part of it, is that when you’re in it, it’s almost impossible to recognize.

This also happens in the field, during coating applications.  I cannot tell you how many times I’ve seen old-timers adding solvent to coating systems which clearly indicate not to add any.

I even saw this phenomenon in our current events.

While I understand this is a stretch for a blog on corrosion, I think it’s timely, important, and educational for our readers – the election.

My political leanings are complex and irrelevant.  But our expectations of what a presidential race should look like have been changed, arguably, corroded.  Dignity, integrity, and a fastidious devotion to truth have been damaged during this election, I hope, not irrevocably.

Presidential nominees calling each other “liars” has become routine, mundane and normal.  And lying, apparently, has become so commonplace, as to be expected.

Further, there has been a not insignificant indifference to the facts.  People are passionate about their candidates and beliefs, and, unfortunately, instead of looking for the best, most reliable, unbiased resources for data, they tend, now, look for “facts” that they would like to find, no matter how far afield they must search.  They try to find facts to suit their preconceived notions or to support their positions, rather than strive to find the most objective truth possible.

What to do?

I don’t want to fall into the category of an individual or blogger who simply rants and complains.  I’m a root-cause-guy, and live to find solutions.  So, once we identify an N-Dev situation, what can we do?

Two things:

  1. Develop a slavish devotion to the data. And find the most objective, accurate data you can.
  2. Act on the data to the exclusion of all else.
  3. Redefine and embrace integrity.

What do you think the massive rush towards autonomous vehicles is?  First and foremost, it saving money – but the root cause is to get humans out of the equation – specifically because of N-Dev.  I mentioned speeding earlier, but there’s now texting while driving and there’s always been some population that drinking while driving has become “normal.”

When was the last time an airliner crashed because its onboard computer said to itself, “Well, yeah, that ol’ left engine is running a little warm, but it’s been okay the last 20 times that happened, so it’s probably fine?”

Or, “You know, that abrasive blast profile is probably okay.  I know the humidity was a bit high, but it’s only a one-year warranty, so I’m sure it’ll be fine.  I don’t see any rust after all.”

Please share your N-Dev stories.  The more we know, the better able we are to provide optimal corrosion mitigation solutions.

  • Norman D. Petticrew
    Posted at 02:10h, 12 July

    Warren, this is an excellent article; well written and plenty of thought in doing so!
    Everything that you said is so true and has always been quite the normal everywhere. Unfortunately, most of the world thinks that we in the coatings industry are still just “painters” and expendable. Corrosion is never a concern until tragedy occurs. They just continue to patch things up in order to keep production up.

    Living in the New Orleans area, I am very well aware of the Deepwater Horizon incident and I have several stories that I will share with you the next time that we meet in person. This incident was a tragedy in more ways than you can imagine!

    Thanks for sharing your ideas, and I look forward to seeing you in the near future.

    Norman D. Petticrew
    Central U.S. & Gulf Coast Manager
    CHLOR RID International – A division of Borchers Americas, Inc.
    (504) 912-7765

  • Jessica Brand
    Posted at 15:32h, 14 July

    I found this article to be extremely insightful and well-written. Thank you, Warren, for sharing your thoughts on this universally important matter.