There is something called the broken windows theory – a norm-setting idea in the criminology world that says if you keep urban environments in good order you can reduce other, more serious crime. From the Wikipedia page on this:
A successful strategy for preventing vandalism, say the book’s authors, is to fix the problems when they are small. Repair the broken windows within a short time, say, a day or a week, and the tendency is that vandals are much less likely to break more windows or do further damage. Clean up the sidewalk every day, and the tendency is for litter not to accumulate (or for the rate of littering to be much less). Problems do not escalate and thus respectable residents do not flee a neighborhood.
While it isn’t wholly adopted as fact – it has some strong evidence that it works. New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani adopted this strategy for New York City – enforcing minor crimes such as vandalism, public drinking, graffiti artists and the “squeegee men.” According to a study of crime trends in NY – rates of both petty and serious crimes fell suddenly and significantly after installing these enforcement rules – and continued to drop for 10 years.
The idea behind the broken windows theory is that the little signals criminals see communicate the norms of behavior – no broken windows = people care and any transgression will be dealt with.
Same goes for corporate culture. Little things matter. Little symbols can impact a huge number of corporate behaviors.
A friend of mine when working with Amazon a few years back as a vendor heard about an “award” that was given out at Amazon called the “door desk” award. In researching this I found that the idea of the “desk door” goes back to 1994, when CEO Jeff Bezos jump-started the e-commerce company and jury-rigged a desk out of a door. Door desks became popular within the company years after it went public, and remained as an example” of Amazon’s frugality.
According to Mr. Beezos himself:
“These desks serve as a symbol of frugality and a way of thinking. It’s very important at Amazon.com to make sure that we’re spending money on things that matter to customers,” said Bezos, 34. “There is a culture of self-reliance. (With the low-tech desks) . . . we can save a lot of money.”
The door desks became such a symbol of the Amazon way of thinking they hand out the “Door Desk Award,” a title given internally to select employees who have a “well-built idea” that creates a significant savings for the company and enables lower prices for customers. Through my friend, I know these awards were cherished by the recipients and not just handed out to anyone. They were scarce and they were valuable.
Some will discount the myth of the door desk – and explain that they actually cost way more to build than simply buying a pre-built desk. But that isn’t really the point.
The point is that Amazon found a way, through a single symbol, to communicate a vast number of ideas…
There’s a reason Amazon is successful… I submit this just might be one of them.