“We’re having a heat wave” is a phrase I have heard several times recently as the plummeting temperatures and record snowfall we have experienced this past week begin to fade. One of the latest was a dear friend of mine, in response to reading that the high temp on Friday would be 33°. Something is wrong in Oklahoma when you’re excited about a high of basically freezing, right?
The phrase “We’re having a heat wave” was made popular in a song written by Irving Berlin for the 1933 musical As Thousands Cheer and was originally sung by Ethel Waters, the first black Broadway star to be given equal billing with whites. My favorite recording of the song is Ella Fitzgerald’s from 1958. Regardless of where you have heard it, or which version you have heard, I am certain you now have that refrain in your head.
Getting back to our particular “heat wave.” It had been 12 days without a temperature above freezing when the forecast predicted a high of 33° for Friday. Some of those days saw low temps in the negative 2 digits and highs in the single digits. That may not be any big thing up north, but in Oklahoma that is COLD! So, when we heard it would be above freezing, we were excited.
This is a very minor example of normalization. Normalization is the process through which ideas and behaviors that may fall outside of social norms come to be regarded as “normal.” In the case of the weather, after almost two weeks of below freezing temps, being cold started to feel normal. When the temperature climbed above freezing, we saw it as a “heat wave.” While we didn’t really think 33° was a heat wave, it still demonstrates that when we are exposed to something for long enough, it starts to become normal, and we stop noticing it.
Normalization is not good or bad in itself, but the things being normalized can be. For example, in 1933 while Ethel Waters was singing “Heatwave” on Broadway, in much of the US, blacks were still segregated from whites and were provided limited or no protection from discrimination and violence. It would be more than 30 years until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, and unfortunately, discrimination is still with us today.
Sometimes good things are normalized. I am old enough to remember when throwing trash out the window of your car was “normal.” However, in the 70’s there was a significant push to reduce littering and clean up the environment. While we have not solved the solid waste problem, it is much less likely that you will see someone throw trash from their car, and you notice it when they do.
What makes normalization problematic is entropy.
Entropy is the process of degradation or running down or a trend to disorder. Entropy is what naturally occurs in all systems unless energy from an external source is introduced. Basically, left alone and without effort being put forth, things move toward a lower state.
Applying this to communities, we find that if we make no effort the culture will move away from compassion and caring and toward selfishness and division. This concept is well stated in this quote:
The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.Edmund Burke
This would naturally correct itself if the degrading culture caused us to take notice; however, normalization leads us to slowly acclimate to a less and less compassionate culture.
The solution to this problem is continuous improvement. This is simply effort (energy) applied in a consistent manner to not only overcome the natural degradation (entropy) but to lift the system to a higher state. Continuous improvement is a familiar term in industry and one we use often at Kimray. We even have a group dedicated to continuous improvement to help us remain focused each day on adding energy to the system in ways that improve the outcomes.
We can also apply continuous improvement to our personal lives and our community and culture. We can even use the same models that we use in the industrial setting, like the Plan, Do, Check, Act model. This model has us establish objectives and the steps to achieve them (plan), carry out those steps (do), evaluate the results and determine if objectives are being met (check), and finally adjust both our measurements and methods based on the results.
Since normalization works in both directions, as we improve our culture and community, we will become accustomed to the improvements and be capable of seeing how we could improve even more. One of the principles of continuous improvement is that it is based on small changes and not only on major paradigm shifts or new inventions. It is hard to imagine a world or a community that is completely different than the current state, but it is not too difficult to see how things could be a little better. When it’s below zero outside, it is hard to imagine the summer, but it is easy to get excited about it being above freezing. As we look around today, what can we see that could be improved in the way we treat and relate to each other? More personally, what can I do to be more compassionate and caring to the people around me? “Nothing” is the wrong answer because no action doesn’t mean no change; it means things get worse. The right answer is that each of us can do something every day to start a heat wave of compassion and care, wherever we are, for whomever we are around. Adding energy to our community to make a difference in people’s lives creates an emotionally warm place to live and work, and it is The Kimray Way.