February 24, 2016 | Mark Paradies

There is no such thing as “Normalization of Deviation”

Normalization of Deviation Does Not Exist

Yes, I have written and spoken about the normalization of deviation before. But today, I hope to convince you that normalization of deviation DOES NOT EXIST.

What is the “Normalization of Deviation”? (Or sometimes referred to as the normalization of deviance.) In an interview, Diane Vaughan, a Sociology Professor from Ohio State University, said:

Social normalization of deviance means that people within the organization become so much accustomed to a deviant behaviour that they don’t consider it as deviant, despite the fact that they far exceed their own rules for the elementary safety.

Let’s think about this for a moment. What defines deviation or deviance?

To deviate means to depart from a set path.

In a country, the government’s rules or laws set the path.

In a company, management usually sets the path. Also, management usually conforms to the regulations set by the government.

To say that there is a normalization of deviation means that the normal course of doing business is to follow the rules, regulations, and laws.

Normalization of Deviation Example

Let’s look at a simple example:


When Jimmy Carter was President, he convinced Congress to pass a national speed limit of 55 miles per hour. He did this because of an oil shortage, and he declared oil conservation to be the “moral equivalent of war.

What happened?

Violating the speed limit became a national pastime.

Can you remember the popular songs?

  • Sammy Hagar sang, “I can’t drive 55.”
  • C.W. McCall sang, “Convoy.”

And the most famous of all? The movie “Smoky and the Bandit” with Burt Reynolds, Sally Fields, and Jackie Gleason …

How many laws did they break in just that movie trailer?

Thus, breaking the speed limit was NORMAL (not a deviation).

What is Normal? (Deviation)

One might think that this is just a rare example. The rule (55 mph speed limit) was just too strict, and people rebelled.

Take a minute to consider what you observe … who breaks the rules?

  • Drivers
  • Teenagers
  • Politicians
  • Executives
  • Pilots
  • Nurses
  • Police
  • Teachers
  • Judges
  • Doctors
  • Clergy

You can probably remember a famous example for each of these classes of people above where rule-breaking was found to be common (or at least not so uncommon).

You might ask yourself … Why do people break the rules? If you ask people why they break the rules, you will hear the following words used in their replies:

  • Unnecessary
  • Burdensome
  • Just for the inexperienced
  • Just once
  • They were just guidelines
  • Everybody does it

My belief is that rule-breaking is part of human nature. We often work the easiest way, the quickest way, the way with the least effort to get things done.

Deviation from strict standards is NOT unusual. Deviation is NORMAL!

Thus, there is no “Normalization of Deviation” … the abnormal state is getting everyone to follow strict rules.

  • To follow the procedure as written
  • To always wear PPE
  • To follow the speed limit
  • To pay every tax
  • To never sleep on the job (to stop nodding off on the back shift or at a boring meeting)

Creating a High-Reliability Organization

Instead of wondering why “Normalization of Deviation” exists and treating it as an abnormal case, we should see that we have to do something special to get the abnormal state of a high-performance (high-reliability) organization to exist.

What we now want is an abnormal state of an extremely high-performance organization that we try to establish with strict codes of behavior that are outside our normal experience (or human nature).

How do you establish this high-performance organization with high compliance with strict standards? That’s a great question and the topic for another article I will write in the future.

Read Part 2: Stop Normalization of Deviation with Normalization of Excellence.

Operational Excellence, Process Safety
Show Comments

11 Replies to “There is no such thing as “Normalization of Deviation””

  • Scott Moore says:

    I challenge this: “Deviation from strict standards is NOT unusual. Deviation is NORMAL!”
    Yes, I can stand on a chair at home instead of using a ladder, but I better use the ladder at work or use a harness per the employer’s rules if I want to stay employed.

    Deviation in certainly not normal in a nuclear powerplant or even for the “touchers” (operators and tradesmen) at my old electric utility. HP Tools, like peer-to-peer, placekeeping, 3-way comm… are mandated. Normalized Deviation are a result of Supervision and the Organization preconditions of not enforcing rules. Individuals do the Willful Violations/disregarding rules (severe consequences) or an Unintentionally Violation (didn’t know, training).

    Supervision and the organization unfortunately may not provide adequate oversight of the rules or allow a de-facto policy that lead to rule violations.

    IMO, tap root, mini-MORT and RCA are fine for equipment failure, but seem to me to be inferior methodologies for Human Factors. HFACS is better IMO as it identifies and leads to interventions on all precursors and preconditions without being sucked into only addressing one or two of the biggest low-hanging fruit on the fishbone diagram.

    Me= NERC HP Practitioner (DOE Vol 1 & 2) from Dr Merlo, Univ Idaho HP Pract (From Shane, Bush Co). HFACS directly from Wiegmann and Shappel a decade ago.

    • Mark Paradies says:

      Interesting comment. There is no “Fishbone Diagram” in TapRooT® and our system digs down to the root causes of human performance issues. You should probably attend some TapRooT® Training before deciding what works and what doesn’t. I have looked at HFACs in detail and know Scott Shappel and Doug Wiegman. Both are fine human factors professors. I find that there system is more research oriented (probably because they are both PhDs) and not as practical or reliable for use in the field by non-human-factors-PhD investigators. You certainly have the right to your opinion, but I think the hundreds of thousands of TapRooT® Users would disagree with you.

      As for deviation in the nuclear industry, I think you prove my point. The immense amount of effort put into compliance is required to get rules followed at work … This highly reliable rule following behavior is the exception (rather than deviation being the exception).

      Thanks for reading the article and I hope you read the remaining articles to discover where the nuclear industry got the high reliability culture from.

  • Kevin Prosser says:

    From my experience in the work industry “normalization of deviation “ does occur and I have seen it occur. It is not an industry wide happening but is an individual occurrence.

    I have seen individuals that follow the rules convince themselves that in this instance their deviation is justified. This does occur in general life and industries that have incredibly established safety/rule following culture.

    While we disagree, you are entitled to your opinion as everyone is entitled to an opinion!

    • Mark Paradies says:

      I think we agree … but differently!

      What I am trying to say is that deviation WILL happen if you don’t do something to prevent it.

      Thus deviation is NORMAL.

      So there is no “normalization” of deviation. Rather, you must do something to make deviation abnormal.

      It is a fine point, but an important one.

  • Chris says:

    Interesting comments. I may be missing the mark here but, if the company set’s the rule (the path) to wear PPE and the worker decides to not use PPE, over time without loss or discipline wouldn’t this be considered normalization of deviation? Whereas it becomes acceptable (normal) to not use PPE although required?

    • Mark Paradies says:

      Yes, my point exactly. Deviation would not be abnormal. Breaking the rules would be normal.

      Even more likely is that the workers are being rewarded in some way for getting the job done quickly without PPE. Thus, following the rules becomes abnormal.

      Read the next article about the normalization of excellence.

  • Nick van Aalst says:

    This article establishes the so-called “normal” (rules, policies, etc…), and then seemingly presents that those are illegitimate/unattainable on the basis of human nature. That is effectively apologizing for those who ought to have known better, and you are risking granting permission to deviate from those established limitations. That is particularly true for readers who do not take the time to read onward.

    The thrust behind “normalization of deviance” is exposing the justifications to not following an expectation. I sense that this article makes an attempt to normalize the normalization of deviance which is a human factor of resignation all by itself. In essence, this article attempts to say “all of those good true things you’ve heard about normalization of deviance, including from those who know best, are wrong… think this way instead”, and the unintended consequences of that stance are troublesome. If “normalization of deviance” awareness was maliciously or unintentionally causing a hazard in its processes, I would say this article was necessary. But, “normalization of deviance” awareness is well-intentioned and written in blood. Your position is written in over-complication of a clear problem that permeates organizations, and requires identification to be addressed.

    I am reading on, and I am following (to some degree) the attempt at this logic, but you lose me further when you say “there is no such thing as normalization of deviance”, and then follow up with a how-to-guide on how to stop what you say does not exist.

    Nevertheless, I would agree with you that it is common to deviate from approved standards and procedures, laws, rules, etc…, however, your article tap dances on being the precise normalization that normalization of deviance awareness training and discussions aim to mitigate. To that end, and based on the preponderance of evidence and the existing literature on the topic of normalization of deviance, I feel as though you are trying to be revolutionary in thought, but you are constructing a relatively weak argument in the face of strong evidence which you even present, perhaps for the sake of traffic? My conclusion is that I find this article largely unnecessary.

    • Daniel Dulcich says:

      Well stated! I read this article in the same way. The author was basing his determination on the wrong factors.

  • Daniel Dulcich says:

    The problem I see with your determination is that you are basing your results on the pattern of behavior as what constitutes the “normal.” While this may apply in social matters, it does not in regulated matters.
    Normalization of deviation (NoD) does not base the “normal” on the end behavior, it is based upon the expectation of the implementation of the regulation or rule. The “normal” is what is expected according to the rule or regulation, NOT what people actually end up doing. NoD is when a rule or regulation is deviated from routinely to the point that the deviation becomes the normal pattern of behavior. No matter how many people deviate from the rule or regulation it does not change the rule or regulation. In fact, your entire paper is describing exactly what NoD IS, where people attempt to set a new normal behavior based upon the behavior of others rather than basing the behavior on the rule or regulation. So, in your attempt to state that NoD doesn’t exist, you actually ended up proving that it does and why it should be taught as a hazard.

  • Brian Newell says:

    I find it curious that the premise you presenting here is people violate rules (laws) because that is normal human behavior somehow built into human genetics. I call that lack of integrity in that if they are being observed, their behavior is “different” (complying with the rules) than when they are not being observed or feel like they can “get away with it”. Referring to the nuclear navy environment and the environment at high performance commercial nuclear power plants that lack of integrity was a sure way to be disqualified by “demonstrated unreliability”. There is no room in high hazard high performance organizations for this type of behavior. In my experiences, taking “ownership” of your behavior and being honest, forthright, and prompt in taking ownership of a mistake or error was, and still is, considered an attribute of a strong process (and nuclear) safety culture.

    Consider that “normal” depends on the social and cultural environment. In high performance, high hazard organizations the “normal” is different than in a low hazard or poorly performing organization. Therefore, deviations in a high performance organization exits and the “normalization” of them is indicative of degrading performance and possibly an indicator of cultural degradation.

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