In September I hope to be celebrating my wife’s birthday on Holland-American’s Westerdam cruise ship. The Westerdam is 936 feet long and holds 1,964 guests. How in the world can you steer such a giant ship?

If you think it is the rudder, then you are half right. The rudder on the Westerdam is enormous, perhaps as big as 10 stories and weighing thousands and thousands of pounds, one person cannot turn that. Therefore, at the edge of the rudder is another small rudder called a “trim tab” which, when turned by the helmsman, creates just enough vacuum that it pulls the big rudder around and the ship then turns. The trim tab is tiny compared to the ship and the ship’s rudder, yet it is what determines the ships course. 

Little things can have a huge effect on big things.

All around us are examples of the trim tabs where small changes have big effects. I’m reminded of New York City years ago that was looking for a big solution to a big crime problem. They considered multiplying the size of the police force, overhauling social services, etc … Then they realized that if they focused on small crimes that signaled disorder — and invited bigger crimes, they might experience a trim tab effect. New York City focused on their subways and invented a system to quickly clean graffiti off the cars. Then the subway police started arresting the 170,000 people who were jumping the tolls each day and getting free rides. By focusing on keeping the subway cars clean and cracking down on these tiny violations, New York City enjoyed a 75% decrease in subway felonies. As they applied these same principles in other areas of the city, felonies were cut in half and murders dropped by two-thirds.

The same principles apply to those of us who work. Too many people feel powerless and unengaged. They blame the organization instead of realizing that small changes in their personal behavior and attitude can have big results. By finding a need, filling it and committing to constant improvement we can become trim tabs and make positive course changes for ourselves and our organizations. A good friend of mine loves Barnes & Noble because she spilled hot chocolate all over the place (twice) and not only did a clean-up person rush to clean her spills, he apologized to my clumsy friend, went and got her a new cup of hot chocolate (twice), at no additional charge. Incidentally, she has bought hundreds of dollars worth of books from this store.

Unfortunately, the same trim tab principles also work in reverse. Small seemingly insignificant behaviors can bring down the reputation of great organizations. A newspaper’s reputation and revenue can be seriously hurt if its newspaper carriers are careless about where they throw their customers’ papers. A shipping clerk who mails books and DVDs from the Lower 48 to Alaska by media mail instead of priority mail not only voids the huge bookseller’s 2-3 day delivery, but he or she also ruins business from Alaska.

So, don’t just pay attention to the big stuff. If you are a manager bring your people together, talk about and fix negative trim tabs, and brainstorm small positive ideas that can make all the difference to your organization’s direction. Then continue this process on a regular basis.

Small changes have huge results. Sweat the small stuff.