I pulled into a petrol station yesterday to fill up.  After repeatedly pulling the lever on the pump to get it to start (the attendant was very slow to authorise it!)  I had a vague sense of being watched.  I glanced at other customers on the forecourt but they were all just going about their business.  I looked over at the attendant again but he had his head down.  But then I noticed that there was a policeman inside the shop looking out at me.

It wasn't until I went inside to pay that I realised it wasn't a policeman at all – merely a cardboard cut-out.  You may have seen one, life-size, looking exactly as a real police officer would, but not real.

They're certainly more common now than they used to be.  An innovative idea to reduce crime perhaps.  Or possibly a response to budget cuts.  Either way it made me wonder whether they are effective.

There's some evidence to suggest that they are.  In an Asda store in Leigh, in the north of England, shoplifting fell by 75% following the introduction of a cardboard policeman.  Shop staff even move him to different parts of the store as part of his daily beat.  In Hull, the life-size cut-outs were put in a number of shops in 2010 , and over the following five months thefts fell 5%.  Thames Valley police said cut-outs have been used in Oxford city centre and reports of shoplifting in the area fell as a result.  And it's international.  In Bangalore, India, since introducing cardboard traffic police, violations on the city's busy roads have fallen considerably.

The evidence certainly seems to suggest that they have a positive impact and the more widespread use of them certainly indicates that police forces have supporting evidence.  And research supports it.  One of the relevant theories is that some (and perhaps most) crime is opportunistic in nature i.e. rather than being premeditated, an offenders decision to commit a crime is made in response to the immediate circumstances and situation in which an offence is contemplated.  In other words, it is dependent on a calculation of risks, costs and rewards (Bennett 1986).  What this means is that crime can be reduced through measures designed to preventing criminal acts by influencing a potential offenders decision about whether to commit a crime in the moment (Jeffery 1971).  Warning signs, improved lighting and visible electronic surveillance are all examples.  Cardboard policemen are another.

The environments we find ourselves in are powerful influences on our behaviour.  The process might be more unconscious than conscious – who would think that a cardboard policeman would affect a criminals behaviour – but it is nonetheless.  It's been said that who you are is shaped by your environment and the extrapolation of this is that changing the environment also changes who you are and how you behave in it.  The introduction of a six foot cardboard cut-out into an environment evidently changes the behaviours of people around it.

This examples illustrates of course the opportunity organisations have to to change the behaviour of their people in their working environment by adopting the same approach.  What impact would a cardboard cut-out customer have for example?  How would he or she improve error rates, reduce complaints, increase urgency, change the mind-set of workers (some of whom probably never interact with a customer), impact the decisions taken in meetings and so on.  And what a powerful symbol of how important customers are in any business.  Even more so if the images are of genuine customers!

Information obtained using the Freedom of Information Act suggests that the average cost of a cut-out is around £100.  Money well spent to shift any organisations customer orientation.

Whilst I didn't hear him speak at the time, that cardboard policeman's message was clear…..

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