How can we prevent organisational accidents?

Part 5

It’s my 62nd birthday in a couple of days. I live on a residential road where there’s a large education college. Around here, it’s impossible, during term time, to go anywhere without being faced with gaggles of 18-year-olds. They are finding their way, on the first steps shape the world of the future.

Although there’s 44 years between us, I don’t feel that much different from the engineering apprentice that I was at Yeovil College[1] in 1978. It’s true that I know a lot more but the curiosity, fascination with how things work and sense of wonder that I had then remains.

In my career, I’ve been fortunate in having experiences in, and working with a wide range of organisations across the globe. Therefore, I’ll not be reticent in expressing a view on what works and what doesn’t.

Those 44 years have been a transformative time. It really has been a dramatic shift from a primary analogue to the predominantly digital. What engineering organisations do, and how they organise has changed far further than was predicted by pragmatic futurists in 1978.

I’m going to relate this to the story of the Boeing 737. It is the most populous civil aircraft in everyday use around the world. It has, if you aggregate all the hours of in-service flying experience, an excellent safety record. More pilots know how to fly it and more mechanics know how to fix it than any other civil aircraft type.

These facts make the MAX saga even more galling. How on earth did such an experienced engineering organisation like Boeing make such a fatal mess? The question has been asked by a lot of people in the past 5-years. There plenty of analysis, investigation, and speculation for the public to chew over. From highly technical reports to sensationalist documentaries.

Is there a phenomenon at the core of the succession of mistakes that were made? I think there is. It has to do with the reason why chains of events don’t break easily when there’s a high level of commitment to a course of action.

This occurs in aircraft accidents when a pilot knows that they should turn back but chooses not to do so, with fatal effects. It’s often called: Press-on-it is[2]. Organisations can have “goal fixation” as much as individuals can. That fixation can come about due to commercial pressure or pride or a naturally competitive spirit. A corporate urge to carry on regardless overtook Boeing, and the FAA and others.

From its inception to an aircraft that I might board tomorrow, the basic 737 is as ancient as I am. At its core it’s a 1960s aircraft that has undergone several big transformations. Bit like the dramatic shift from a primary analogue to the predominantly digital world.

Aircraft manufacturers, of all types are faced with this question. When is enough, enough? When do we stop modifying, upgrading, or converting a basic aircraft type?

I did design work for the BAe Advanced Turboprop (ATP)[3], The aircraft was a redesign of the Hawker Siddeley HS 748[4]. A long lived and successful aircraft type. Unfortunately, it was a redesign too far. Too many compromises, facing hot competition in the twin turboprop market. The ATP achieved limited sales and production was terminated. A decision was made to stop. I think that if BAe had started with a clean sheet of paper in the 1980s there’d still be a successful aircraft flying.

Back to the MAX saga. In my opinion it was a change too far. However, once committed to that change there was no turning back. Noone was able to decide to stop or rethink. A strong corporate urge to carry on regardless blinded people to the reality of the situation that was unfolding.

The MAX is a derivative of a derivative. The 737 went from “classic” to Next Generation to MAX over 4-decades. The story is not over but the last 5-years will never be forgotten by the aircraft industry.


[1] https://www.yeovil.ac.uk/

[2] https://skybrary.aero/articles/press-itis-oghfa-bn

[3] https://www.aerospace-technology.com/projects/bae_atp/

[4] https://www.baesystems.com/en/heritage/avro-748—avro-748mf

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