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

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

Words to that effect were spoken by two different customers of Xplore’s current European sales director Sandy McCaskie, when he worked at GD Itronix years ago. As Sandy recounted in a recent webinar with Field Service News, these two customers had used rugged tablets for a product-generation. However, for the succeeding generation, they proceeded to deploy non-rugged devices, but stopped their projects soon after when 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 that spent their days standing up, and non-rugged devices could not survive a drop from 3-4 feet onto the pavement – though drops occurred quite frequently. Clearly, the reason why the rugged tablets never broke was because they were built not to break, unlike business-grade devices that are not designed with such strict durability considerations. Yet, both customers fell victim to the “Normalization of Risk” (or “Normalization of Deviance” to be consistent with NASA).

As defined by Dr.Diane Vaughn, the Normalization of Risk is “The 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 accident, where launching at an ambient temperature that was a little lower than the O-Rings were designed to support worked a couple of times without incident. This led engineers 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, most 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 risk even further. Then a 2-second glance at the phone screen turns into 3 or 4 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 use checklists, and use them rigorously. 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 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, as Xplore’s vice president of marketing John Graff mentioned during a recent Field Technologies Online  webinar it can be dangerous to think that there is “Never enough time to do it right, but always enough time to do it again.” This frame of mind is especially risky for organizations that downplay the advantages of rugged mobile computers simply because it would take longer, cost more or require additional executive buy-in to deploy inherently rugged devices vs. off-the-shelf business-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 dropped tablets increases. 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 (and ultimately minimize your risk of normalizing risk): If workers are standing and working, your devices are at risk of encountering many different, potentially fatal, hazards. Therefore, if the cost of lost downtime 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 $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 this case, the answer is no, because the cost of a broken tablet to restaurant sales is minimal. Most can revert to paper, or simply pick up a spare tablet since there isn’t anything special or unique in how they are set-up for restaurant workflows. Maybe four restaurant table orders are delayed if a tablet breaks. That costs the restaurant at most $250 (if anything), which is approximately the cost of a cheap mini-tablet. 

The rugged vs. non-rugged debate by field service organizations is entirely different, 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 – in a simple scenario. If that tablet breaks, and that tech is down until he can return to the office to get a new one – which 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.) – then customers aren’t serviced and significant costs are incurred. In fact, the cost of this one tablet failure quickly moves in to the thousands of dollars for most organizations. Thus, proof that rugged tablets quickly pay for themselves in these environments. 


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 new 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.