The blunt trauma of Boeing caused by a faulty ‘nervous system’

‘A “culture of concealment” at Boeing and a desire to put profits before safety were among the failures that contributed to two fatal crashes of the 737 Max, a congressional report has concluded.’

People who cannot feel pain because of a faulty central nervous system (CNS) are faced with recurrent high risk and shortened lives. These poor people are condemned to repeatedly burning and breaking their bodies because their pain receptors do not function, or the messages that they send are ignored by their brains. 

Now think of this as a metaphor for organisational failures. 

Does: ‘senior managers appeared to ignore warnings from rank-and-file employees’  sound like a familiar refrain? Well this time it comes from the Congressional Report into the 737 Max disasters. A devastating condemnation of Boeing. However, the central point for me, in the 237 page report, is the systemic failure to pass important information through the organisation in a timely and effective manner, so that common-sense-making took place at the highest levels based on uncomfortable truths – rather than egos and dollars.

The human body (when functioning well) is able to deliver and process cues and clues from its environment instantly. Organisations tend to do less well: 1. where hubris prevails and 2. where systems do not mirror complexities of the organisation and its context.

Here I use the CNS as a root metaphor to explain the failures of Boeing that led to the tragic death of 346 people, the posit here is that the organisation lost, or ignored, its capacity for touch & feel.

Nerve receptors spread throughout the human body provide immediate sensory signals through the CNS which are then interpreted into the 5 human senses by the brain. The genius of evolution has enabled humans (with all the inherent problems that brings) to become the super-species on Earth through the combination of hard-wired senses and the ability to create abstract meaning through imagination and belief. In the literal (rather than the oft hackneyed) sense our evolutionary processes enable us to touch & feel both ‘things’ and ‘situations’.

Touch being the binary hard-wired sending of sensory information and feel the interpretive creation of augmented meaning e.g. ‘pain’ is an absolute, whilst ‘sharp’ is a concept that drives meaning (i.e. we are careful of sharp knives because they can cause pain).

The seminal business book of the modern era (which still defines the standard today), In Search of Excellence, was written in 1982 by two former McKinsey partners: Tom Peters and Bob Waterman. In subsequent (very well-paying!) seminars Tom Peters would often proudly boast that on visiting the corporate HQ of a new client organisation, it would take him ’30 seconds, on a bad day’ to get a good fix on the prevailing corporate culture. Tom may have been exaggerating for effect… but probably not as much as you might think….

Tom Peters was a very experienced business consultant before he became an internationally best-selling author. So, whilst he was picking up binary information in the reception area: decor, style, magazines, messaging, professionalism and quality of reception staff (touch, if you will), his wide experience immediately processed that information into a loosely held plausible interpretation of organisational culture (feel )based upon the qualitative processing of cues and clues into reasonable meaning.

Through this example it is possible to understand that there are many ways of using our evolutionary skills in business settings to collect and collate information without the tiresome need for vertical surveys or 30 graduates with clipboards. However, it does need the relentless support, and humility, of leaders to actively search for the uncomfortable truths in far flung and dissident areas of their businesses. As well as the technology to rapidly source and assimilate this information into useful meaning. There has to be both a desire and a means.

The desire comes in the form of leaders who are passionate to ask searching questions of themselves and their colleagues and put aside self-interest for a higher purpose.

The means comes in the form of technology that already exists today by creating virtual ‘touch’ through the voices of people (clues) collected and instantly processed from across a widely dispersed organisation into a collective ‘feel’ of ‘what is going on around here?’ Mimicking the CNS and the brain of our own bodies.

The ‘blunt trauma’ rightly meted out to Boeing leaders is a direct result of the deliberate ignoring of cues and clues that were readily available and could so easily have been assembled into warnings of imminent disaster. Put another way Boeing disabled its own pain receptors, so there was no desire and no means of detecting a disaster waiting to happen.

As a footnote to where this article started, organisations that follow Boeing’s lamentable performance will also tend to be accident prone and subject to shortened lives. If increasingly complex and dynamic organisations are to replicate the same degree of evolutionary success in the avoidance of risk, they need to learn more from the central nervous system, reproduce it in their businesses and listen to what it tells them!

The crashes were “the horrific culmination of a series of faulty technical assumptions by Boeing’s engineers, a lack of transparency on the part of Boeing’s management and grossly insufficient oversight” by the Federal Aviation Administration, according to the report, which was published yesterday by the US House of Representatives’ transport committee.