We’ve always done it that way

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Michelin Y. Joplin
  • 9th Medical Operations Squadron
Have you ever happened upon a new unit and as a part of your orientation your trainer explains how to do a process or procedure and you wondered to yourself, hmmm? When you ask the question, "Why do you do this?" The trainer says, "We've always done it this way." You accept the explanation because you're new. They've always done it that way so it must be right. Low and behold a year later, you are the trainer and a trainee asks the same question. This time the scenario is different. Rather than accepting the "status quo" the trainee inquires yet again, and asks to see the policy for verification. Upon viewing said policy, you both discover no one is performing the procedure correctly which could have eventually resulted in loss of equipment, degradation in mission effectiveness and/or countless injuries to our Airmen; our number one resource. Face it. You'd succumbed to the status quo; haplessly accepting the norm even though it's wrong.

Author Dianne Vaughn theorizes this phenomenon as "culture of complacency and normalization of deviance". Sounds bad, doesn't it? It gets worse. Vaughn defines social normalization of deviance as people within an organization who have become so accustomed to a deviant behavior that they don't consider their actions or approach to their work as deviant, despite the fact they far exceed their own rules for basic safety. In her book, The Challenger Launch Decision, she describes how the NASA shuttle design team, given their culture of excellence and making things happen, presumed they fixed a design flaw with the shuttle rocket booster "O" rings when in fact it wasn't. The oversight resulted in the loss of the space shuttle Challenger and deaths of its seven crew members.

Merriam-Webster defines complacency as self-satisfaction especially when accompanied by unawareness of actual dangers or deficiencies. Even the most dynamic organizations can turn complacent, thinking that what they are doing is right, and that there is no need to change. In any organization, consistent success and positive accomplishments without assessment, or debrief can foster complacency. Quite the oxymoron isn't it? One must wonder how highly successful organizations are plagued with complacency. High levels of achievement can tend to lead people to sit back, take it easy, and "ride the success train". Some fail to seek improvement in their performance or product and fall prey to the complacency. In my research, I learned that normalization of deviance is not localized to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. Normalization of deviance spans executive level management, small businesses as well as health care systems administration. We as leaders and experts in our respective crafts must ensure we empower others to ask "why" and challenge the norm to protect our wingmen and their families from harm.

Most recently, two personnel assigned to 9th Medical Operations Squadron overcame the "complacency plague" and reported several events that identified the same structural hazard. These medical professionals vigorously sought resolution to the problem and in doing so offered several courses of action to prevent further incidents. The problem was elevated to the Air Force Medical Operations level health facilities design team which changed the clinic design structure. Their persistence in reporting and recommendations and ability to overcome changed the course for future hospital designs across the Air Force Medical Service and possibly even DoD as this design flaw could have severely injured someone. Their ability to overcome the normalization of deviance may have ultimately transformed the entire AF medical facilities design.

I implore each of you to go about your daily routines and execute the 9RW mission in support of Global ISR, personify what it means to be an "American Airman", and don't fall prey to complacency, or normalized deviance. "This is how we always do it" is just as bad as those famous yet infamous last words we all know, "Hey, watch this." Going through the motions is the most disadvantageous thing any Airman can do no matter how mundane the task. Follow the policies and procedures and do the job right, with maximum effectiveness, the first time. If you do, you won't have to come back and do it again, which compromises mission effectiveness. If the policies and procedures don't make sense, be that stellar "Wingman, Leader, Warrior" and be professional, dignified and courageous in challenging yourselves and your peers to take corrective action to overcome complacency where ever you find it. Remember, Gen (retired) Colin Powell said, "Doing the right thing sometimes means pissing people off.

Do your best, and always do the right thing.