Boeing 737 MAX Assembly Line

The Boeing Crisis: Anatomy of a Decision Failure Cascade in Communications

In Crisis Management by Digital Strategies

By Brian Glicklich– In our Strategic & Crisis Strategy Practice, we observe that there is almost always ample warning of an impending problem, regardless of how big or small it may be. Indeed the difference between strategic and crisis communications is that a sound strategic plan often averts the crisis itself, or at least its communications impact. The issue in business crisis is usually not lack of notice; it is lack of awareness of vulnerabilities on the part of senior management. This is certainly true of Boeing.

Boeing today faces the largest crisis in its history based not only on the failure of a key system to behave safely, but also on their companywide failure to recognize many problems in stakeholder communications regarding the 737 MAX aircraft. These problems cascaded with the lack of situational awareness of a key system’s deficiencies, and caused the loss of hundreds of lives before they were addressed. As with most crises, all the needed information was known long in advance of the grounding of the fleet, and resultant loss of confidence that has run through the entire organization.

Let’s break down the communication issues that represent key points of failure in Boeing’s strategy:

Communications Failures Before a Crisis

Many assume crisis and strategic communications planning occurs after a crisis occurs. Yet often, the seeds of preventable problems are sown months or years in advance, as in Boeing’s case. The primary promise of this new aircraft was better fuel efficiency, and this required larger engines mounted higher on the airframe. That changed the flying characteristics of the new plane. A computer control system was developed and given authority to control key elements of the flying characteristics autonomously. Yet pilots and regulators knew little about how this MCAS system literally held the lives of every passenger in its hands.

In this case, Boeing developed a key safety system that had substantial input into the flying characteristics of the plane, and could override the pilots with great force. Yet they did not have a robust internal conversation about it, nor did they fully communicate it to regulators, even after the system was significantly changed from the approved original specification. Most tellingly, the very people who would rely on it, pilots, barely knew it existed… since mention of it had been deleted from their manuals on Boeing’s advice. This was a predictable failure point based on a pure lack of communications. It was avoidable.

We observe often that, contrary to belief, the best crisis communications plan is one that is never needed. Best practice crisis and strategic communications do not always occur after a crisis does. Communications strategists have a wide range of experiences in locating communications failure points, and assist proactive organizations in avoiding these weak links that can put them in peril before bad news arrives on their doorstep.

Strategic Communications is Stakeholder Driven, not Media Driven

Simple truth: A crisis communications plan is what remains when you fail to properly manage a strategic communications plan. Also true is that strategic plans are built on 360-degree communications with internal and external stakeholders, with media and reporter communications only one of many components.

For this reason, strategic communications advisors look to the entire message process; the stakeholders, how they organize, how they surface knowledge and how they track it. We look for weak links and address them proactively. We bring together working groups that often do not naturally and regularly communicate, and make sure every group knows the status and issues of every other. Our goal is to protect our client from unforced communications errors.

A crisis communications plan is what remains when you fail to properly manage a strategic communications plan.

Digital Strategies

Our experience leads us to probe certain organizational pairs that often talk past each other; two common examples are the pairing of Information Technology and Digital Services, and the pairing of Engineers and Customers. In Boeing’s case, the engineers who designed systems were making assumptions about the pilots who would fly them, and some of those decisions were tragically misguided. These same engineers solved certain deliverables about low speed operations by increasing the force that the now discredited MCAS system could apply to the controls, yet the regulators who approved the system did not know of the changes. In a now infamous call among regulators made shortly after the first crash, one FAA official reportedly asked, “What’s MCAS?” during a discussion of the theory that this new safety system was responsible for the loss of lives.

Crisis Usually Occurs after Early Warnings are Ignored

The day before Boeing 737 MAX LionAir flight 610 crashed in the sea, the same aircraft on another flight had the same problem occur. The crew saved the airplane, but did not note the severity of the problem in maintenance logs. Everything that needed to be known was in the heads of the two pilots of that plane, but no one else. The very next day, the same airplane had the same problem with a. new crew in a different phase of flight, and the plane crashed, killing 189 people.

In our crisis practice, we find that when we breakdown the anatomy of most engagements we manage, someone always knew everything needed before the crisis occurred. Sometimes, like with LionAir, they didn’t recognize the importance or there wasn’t adequate time to digest it. But more often, we find that the people who know when a crisis is starting are distant from the senior leadership who could act decisively to avert it, and there are no systems to allow an alarm to be sounded.

In almost every crisis we manage, someone had access to every piece of information needed to avert it, but lacked the ability or confidence to bring it forth to the larger organization which could have averted it.

Digital Strategies

We build internal crisis teams and processes to encourage early reporting of possible problems, and communicate about them through all relevant parts of our client’s organization. This early warning system allows us to remediate potential crises before they occur. I’m sure Boeing of today would agree that 100 false alarms of this system would have been vastly less disruptive or painful than the crisis that occurred through it’s absence.

Contact us for a completely confidential evaluation of your situation.

Brian Glicklich is the CEO of Digital Strategies.

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