I came across (yet another) example of real-life broken windows last night.
I went to the supermarket about 6:30pm to buy some lettuce. Big mistake. At that time of night it’s crowded, full of folks on their way home. All the checkout lanes were four people deep, and every employee was working a register. It was chaotic, and a high pressure environment for those who worked there. Customers picked up on the tension: everyone was a little on edge.
Then, three people ahead of me in line, a women dropped a box of raspberries out of her cart. They spread out in a patch maybe 18” across. The woman was embarrassed, and pointed out the spill to the guy running the checkout. He craned his head to look, then looked at the length of the line and the expression on the face of the person he was serving. “I’m too busy to deal with that now,” he said. But he did call out to the floor manager. She was on her way to start up a new checkout, clearly harried. “No time” she called. So the raspberries lay there. As the line moved forward, the woman tried to move the raspberries out of the way, but she wasn’t too successful. In fact she managed to squash a few of them. The next person in line also tried to be careful, but his trolley ran over some, and got raspberry juice on the wheels. And so it went. By the time I checked out, the raspberries were a purple-red mess on the floor. The mess had spread from a small, contained spot to a large stain, and there were red tracks leading from the checkout to the two doors. The stains were already drying. It was going to take someone a while to clean it all up.
On the way home, I thought “that’s another great ‘broken windows’ story.” Fail to fix something early, and reap a whole lot of extra work later. Had the assistant said to the line: “Let me clean these up before they get all over your shoes” and spent 30 seconds with a broom, the problem would have gone away, and no one would have complained. In fact, the customers would have left the store glad that someone actually cleaned things up. Instead, we walked away with a bad impression and red-stained shoes.
It’s the same on software projects. Even when (especially when) things are chaotic and pressured, make the time to fix the small stuff. Otherwise it’ll just become big stuff, and your customers will end up seeing red.