Why the “Normalization of Risk” Can Put Your Organization, and Mobile Workers, at Risk

Plus, Tips on How to Minimize the Risk of Failure on Your Next Mobility Project

Risk management
by Bob Ashenbrenner
June 21, 2019

“We don’t need to buy rugged tablets again, they never broke. During our refresh, we’ll buy commercial-grade.”

Words to that effect were spoken by two different customers to a sales executive at another rugged mobile device company. As he recounted the story to me at a trade show, these two customers had used rugged tablets for a product-generation. However, for the succeeding generation, they proceeded to deploy non-rugged devices. They both stopped their rollouts soon after because they started experiencing high failure rates.

One customer was using the mobile devices for on-the-street market research, and the other was an insurance company using them for claims assessment. The issue was that, in both cases, the devices were being used by workers who spent their days standing up, and non-rugged devices could not survive a drop from 3-4 feet onto the pavement – these drops occurred more frequently than the customers expected. The reason why the rugged tablets they had used previously never broke in such scenarios was because they were built not to break, unlike off-the-shelf business-grade "rugged" or consumer-grade (aka “non-rugged”) devices that are not designed with such strict durability considerations. But it was the survivability of the rugged tablets – the lack of incidents over a multi-year period – that ultimately led both customers to fall victim to the “normalization of risk” (or “normalization of deviance” to be consistent with NASA) and make the later-regretted decision to switch to “less expensive” non-rugged devices.

As defined by Dr. Diane Vaughan, the normalization of risk isthe 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.”

The classic example was the Challenger Shuttle accident in 1986. Previous to the disaster, there were a few successful launches at an ambient temperature that was a little lower than the O-Rings were designed to support. Since these launches were completed without incident, the launch team felt it was safe to assume that the risks associated with cold-temperature launches were overstated – making “successful” cold-temperature launches seem normal. Until one such launch failed, catastrophically.

Such normalization of risk happens in everyday life. We know that accessing apps on smartphones while driving is extremely dangerous. Yet, many drivers still use their smartphone while driving. Why? Because they get away with it a few times. The level of risk seems less than it is. So, they do it more, and soon it doesn’t seem that risky. Or they begin to believe that “I can handle it better than others,” which dilutes the perception of risk even further. Then a two-second glance at the phone screen turns into three or four seconds, and then there is a crash.

There are a few lessons here.

1.       First – whether you are trying to decide between rugged and non-rugged tablets for your mobile workers or debating whether or not to look down at your device while driving – you must always be aware of the difference between mitigating risk and the absence of risk. Effective risk prevention should not be mistaken for no risk. Airplane pilots rigorously use checklists. However, it is not in our human nature to engage in repetitive tasks, even if they yield a “saving moment.” That is why the aviation industry has actively connected the lack of checklist use with accidents. As part of a safety education campaign, authorities distributed videos of plane crashes and showed pilots that the use of a checklist would have prevented the accidents. They provided proof to mitigate the normalization of risk. Today, no pilot would say that, since they rarely find a problem, they don’t need to use a checklist.

2.       Secondly, there is an old saying around project management: “there’s never enough time to do it right, but always enough time to do it over.” This frame of mind is especially risky for organizations that downplay the advantages of rugged mobile computers simply because they presume it would take longer, would cost more or require additional executive buy-in to deploy inherently rugged devices vs. off-the-shelf business-grade or consumer-grade devices. Yes, you may get your project off the ground sooner by opting for non-rugged tablets, but you may find your workers’ downtime increase as the number of failing tablets increases due to drops or exposures to fluid contaminants, vibration or dust.  Therefore, you must decide how much of an impact a broken tablet would have on your operation.

3.       Lastly, this is how to really decide if “rugged is worth it” (to ultimately minimize your risk of normalizing risk): if workers are standing and working, your devices are at risk of encountering many different hazards which could lead to device failure. Therefore, if the cost of lost productivity is greater than the cost of the mobile device, then you need rugged. Said differently, if a few hours without a device only costs your organization $700 or less, then you don’t need rugged. However, if the cost of an idle worker, plus the cost of an unserved customer, plus the cost of IT re-provisioning a new mobile device is greater than, say, $700, then the risk requires the investment of more durable devices.

I used to be asked about rugged tablets in restaurants. Since the wait staff is standing and working, they would (by definition) need rugged, correct? In the case of traditional table restaurants with servers, the answer is no.

The cost of a broken tablet to restaurant sales could be minimal. Most servers in a sit-down dining environment can revert to paper in a pinch without causing too many disruptions in the workflow. Maybe four restaurant table orders would be delayed if a tablet breaks. That costs the restaurant at most $250 (if anything), which is approximately the cost of a cheap mini-tablet.

However, to really make this cost-benefit point, the answer changes for those who use the tablets for queue-busting in a quick-service environment. The pay-back for queue-busting is often very short, usually just a few months for rugged devices. Lines that get longer than a few cars so often cause the next car to drive on by; retaining these sales is very profitable. So, in these cases, the economics are strongly in favor of rugged devices that will survive. And that’s before you realize the environment that these devices will experience – and have to survive – on a daily basis: often outside in bright sun, rain and other challenging conditions.

The rugged vs. non-rugged debate by field service organizations is at a different level entirely, as their mobile computer utilization – and therefore, requirements – are entirely different. Trained technicians spend their days driving to appointments, using GPS and other dispatch tools. Data about inspection, maintenance and repair activities are recorded; replacement parts are scanned and added to invoices; and customer requests, along with the resultant actions, are all recorded. And that’s in a simple scenario. If that tablet breaks, and that tech is down until he or she can return to the office to get a new one, then customers aren’t serviced and significant costs are incurred. Don’t forget that the new tablet will still need to be provisioned (cell network turned on, password and fingerprint credentials installed, custom apps loaded and seat licenses managed, data recovered and transferred, etc.) before the technician is back up and running. It’s not a grab-and-go replacement situation.

In fact, the cost of this one tablet failure quickly moves into the thousands of dollars for most organizations. This is proof that rugged tablets quickly pay for themselves in these environments.

Check out this TCO Calculator and insert your labor costs, etc. to see your break-even point.

Just remember: The normalization of risk has led many organizations to make risky mobile technology decisions that has ultimately cost them more in losses (time, money, customers) than what they ever stood to gain.

If you want to minimize the risk of failure during your next mobility project, download this mobility buying playbook now.

It is an actionable, step-by-step guide to the mobile technology capabilities and resource management requirements you must consider for your specific work environment and organizational structure. This proven planning method will help you strategically, and therefore confidently, select the right mobile solution for your business goals and secure executive buy-in for your entire mobility project.  Don’t allow the normalization of risk trap lead to your own business disaster.

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Bob Ashenbrenner
Bob Ashenbrenner has more than 25 years of computer engineering and engineering management experience, with 18 of those specific to mobility and the field requirements that enable real work to happen