A Lesson from the Boeing 737 Max Disaster

Someday books will be written about this.

I don’t know the facts but I do know that when a company only wants to listen to Yes-men they’re bound to get in trouble sooner or later. Putting extra frosting on the cake won’t conceal the fact that it’s burnt to a crisp. At least not when your guests take their first bites.

The story of how Ford avoided bankruptcy back 10 years ago (when GM and Chrysler held they hats out to Washington for a bailout) is instructive. For years they had a culture of concealment. Don’t let on that there’s a problem. Your head will roll.

When Ford’s new CEO, Alan Mulalley, appeared on the scene in 2006, he led the company in a stunning turnaround. Much has been written about it. Here is one of those articles.

Here’s a second.

In this second article he outlines the principles that guided his leadership philosophy. The point that I found especially significant was this one: Reward Honesty.

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Alan Mulally. Creative Commons.

When he came to Ford, from Boeing ironically, Alan Mulally found that the division leaders had been trained to conceal, rather than admit, failings in their divisions. Every department head at the table said there was no weakness or failing in their department. All was going great.

Mulally responded by saying this is wonderful. There is no room for improvement and we’re going to lose 14 billion dollars this year.

I paraphrase there, but essentially, he was making them re-think their positions. How could things be going great if the company was bleeding red ink? When the first VP acknowledged a problem, Mulally did not chop the guy’s head off. He turned to the others and said, “Anyone have experience with this? How can we help?”

Instead of punishing weakness, he rewarded honesty.

The team began to work together. The results proved noteworthy, and what he achieved has been written up in books.

Is it possible that today’s Boeing Max turmoil stems from Boeing having become a culture in which upper management refused to hear what they did not want to hear. Or was leadership simply out of touch with what was going on? Were the underlings trained to keep upper management in the dark?

The principle I outlined in my article in The Startup applies directly to this issue. The fundamental role of a leader is to make decisions. To make decisions, he or she must know the facts. That is, the truth. If the only people you listen to for ideas and information are cheerleaders, you will one day get bit. In addition to the cheerleaders you must also give ear to the skeptics.

The reason this is necessary is that people frequently have agendas. If you’ve ever spent a few seasons in corporate culture, you know this is true. Hence, a discerning ear, an open ear to all voices, facts, concerns, is an imperative.

The 737 Max has been grounded now for 10 months after two crashes that killed hundreds. According to this New York Times article there were employees who had no faith whatsoever in the new aircraft, even before it launch. Why were their voices not heard?

This brings to mind the Challenger disaster back in the 80s. The nation watched as the space shuttle took off and blew up in a thousand pieces after 73 seconds of flight, killing seven American astronauts on national television.

The voices of those at Morton Thiokol who questioned the decision to launch seemed to have been gagged. Or perhaps the “chain of command” had too many layers between the engineers and the decision makers. As a result of an O-ring failure seven lives were lost and a shadow cast on the entire space shuttle program.

Although for most businesses lives are not at stake, in all businesses good decision making is integral to success. The best decision making occurs when we listen to all the voices in the room, and not just the cheerleaders.

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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