Aircraft Accidents and Mismanagement, Part One

In 2015, Victor Lipman wrote an article for Forbes, titled: People Leave Managers, Not Companies.  In the article, Lipman makes the point: “In short, the central relationship between manager and employee plays a critical role,” in employee disengagement.  This may sound like a trivial problem, not rising to the level of concern.  However, in safety-sensitive environments, e.g. aviation, employee engagement is not an option; attention to detail is critical to not just the health and hazard of the employee, but to the security of those engaged in safety of flight.

Two things that I try to incorporate heavily when instructing my classes are: Culture and the Five Whys.  The Culture of an organization is the single most important aspect of an organization; it is a major factor when conducting Risk Analysis to fix systemic problems.  The Five Whys dictates that, when deconstructing any accident, it is crucial to go backwards from the accident, asking ‘Why’ at least five times; each answer generates another ‘Why’ until the conclusion solves the mystery; it guarantees discovering the root cause of the accident.  I’ve found that a major culprit in both cultural problems and accident root causes stems from concerns with Management, or, to be more precise, Mismanagement.

Management – either middle or front-line – controls communication between upper executives and the workforce; their persuasions influence executives in making life changing decisions, for good or bad, on the workforce.  Since there exists, especially in the larger companies, communication divides between executive management and the Workforce, inept management is almost impossible to filter out, resulting in workforce frustrations.

To allay any thoughts that I’m trashing Management, understand I’ve worked in Management, myself; I’ve been there and even got the T-shirt.  I supervised a major airline’s maintenance line station, consisting of eighty-five mechanics in an environment that would qualify as adversarial.  I would never do it again … no, no, no.  Not because I couldn’t do the job; not because of the combative environment; not even because I ran out of people to pay to start my car for me each night (it was a rea-eally adversarial environment).  Instead, it was the same Management people I knew before I became a supervisor versus those same Management people I knew after I became a supervisor.  Those people are the reasons I will never work in Management again.

Yes, Management is a thankless job.  It’s wearing the biggest target in a ‘Kick-Me’ contest, and everyone’s wearing golf shoes.  It’s also a job one volunteers for; specifically, one walks into a management interview with eyes open wide, knowing the responsibilities.  Still, one interviews anyway.  What does a manager do?  Does the employee work for the manager, or does the manager actually work for the worker?

When my employees depended on me to fight their battles, I often took the bullet for them, even when they weren’t in the right.  I stood toe-to-toe with condescending airline pilots, technical specialists, flight planners and other surly management types.  I suffered some bloody noses, received quite a few apologies, but always made my mechanics’ battles, my battle.  Written discipline was an absolute last resort.  My job was to support their efforts to do their job, which was to fix airplanes.  Why?  Because the pilots never said, “I had to disconnect the number two generator in flight.  Send out a manager.”  The First Officer never called over a manager to look at a hydraulic leak.  They always asked for the mechanic.

During accident investigations, it was my job to familiarize myself with different air operator cultures.  In these situations, I found Management could be the breaking point between safety and carelessness; indeed, Management dictated the very Corporate Culture.  Their actions or inactions affected morale, shift schedules, inter-shift relations, tooling, budgeting, overtime, training, vacations and safety.  Add a Union to a non-union shop and the Culture transforms into unrecognizable chaos with a short fuse.

Why is this important?  It speaks to the importance of Culture.  A management team’s competency or inclination to support their employees, dictates their employees’ successes and the workforce’s willingness to stay at the job for the long haul.  However, this same Management team can destroy morale, productivity … and safety.

With accidents, e.g. Air Midwest 5481, management had no presence; the site manager worked dayshift while the mechanics worked at night.  In the National Airlines flight 102 disaster, why wasn’t Management making the decisions on what loads were acceptable to carry?  The safety situation becomes more tenuous when employing contractors, workers who have no stake in the company’s success, beyond the paycheck.  The mindset: there’ll always be someone needing contractors.

Does this mean the Management-to-Workforce relationship has changed?  To me it does, because in my experience, Management no longer supports Staff; instead, Staff supports Management.  This is a dangerous idea.

Think about it: advances in technology and corporate practices are putting the workforce in a no-win position; these dramatic changes are being introduced subtly.  Robots are replacing food service employees and stock clerks.  Cashiers are being ousted by self-scanning registers.  Hotels reward customers for cutting back on maid service.  Aircraft manufacturers are investing in single-pilot and – eventually – pilotless technologies.

With this realization, the Culture shifts.  Management doesn’t need the employee because Executive Management provides the front-line manager with the toys to get the job done less expensively and more efficiently.  Management is moving into the driver’s seat; technology supports the manager; the workforce becomes expendable.

This seems like a dark situation right out of the book, 1984.  I have always worried that Safety and Common Sense are being quickly – too quickly – replaced by the security of technology.  How it will reconcile itself in the future is something no can foresee.  Is it true that People leave managers, not companies?  Perhaps.  I’m more concerned that there will come a time when the manager … and the company … just won’t care.

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