Friday, June 30, 2006

My response

Here's my response to Mr Blanik:

"I agree with you in that if any crew member was SURE the Pan Am was on the runway, take off would be aborted. However, the issue of power distance comes into play especially when there is time pressure, a lot of stress and ambiguity.

In KLM's case, Captain Van Zanten was under pressure because of the flight delays. He was sure there was no plane on the runway. Of course, the flight engineer was not SURE and hence he couldn't make a firm statement. Because he wasn't sure, the flight engineer had to keep quiet when he was over-ruled by Van Zanten. But let's say Van Zanten himself had a doubt about whether the Pan Am had cleared the runway. Would he have taken off? Highly unlikely. So the fact that Van Zanten had more power than the flight engineer is significant.

As far as putting another group of people into a flight simulator goes, I would say that what matters is not what happens in the flight simulator. What matters is the mindset of the captain. If a captain has the attitude that he is the boss and hence has more power than the others, he will do what he thinks is right, regardless of the others' opinions. In that sense, putting another group of people in the simulator would have given the same result: the captain would have taken off. That is why I don't blame Van Zanten - I am not a pilot but if I was in Van Zanten's position, I would probably have taken off too.

On the other hand, let's say that captains had to be voted in. I am not talking of voting over an issue at the instant a decision has to be made (such as whether to take-off), but voting for the captain himself. This would not happen in the cockpit, but well before that - ie, when the captain is 'appointed'.

Once a captain/boss knows that subordinates have the power to vote him out, it produces a different mindset - bosses are more likely to listen to their subordinates. If the flight engineer had a doubt, then Van Zanten would probably have treated that doubt more seriously than he did.

This situation is very similar to that of space shuttle Challenger. The shuttle engineers had argued against lift-off, but they didn't have enough data to prove their case. The situation was ambiguous. Their bosses over-ruled them. Again, the bosses were under pressure – several earlier lift-offs had been cancelled and the rocket booster contractors had a billion dollars at stake. In this situation - ambiguity coupled with other pressures, the bosses used their power. The result was tragic.

Hence, in my opinion, power-distance was a significant factor in the KLM/Pan Am disaster. Of course, this factor would not have come into play at all, if the various other factors (bomb scare at the airport, fog, heterodyne etc) hadn't occurred in the first place. "

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Monday, June 26, 2006

Tenerife disaster, revisited

In response to my post on the Tenerife disaster (in which two Jumbo jets collided and over 500 people died), "Mr Blanik" (a nickname) writes:

"I'd like to say that many people, including myself, disagree completely about blaming "power distance" among KLM 747's crew as a factor on this accident. Briefingly, I'd say that if any crew member were SURE the PanAm was actualy on the runway, they would have interrupted the takeoff. You should try putting a captain, a copilot and a FE into a flight simmulator and emmulate a situation where they should elect for aborting an important* manouver based on a doubtfull information from the copilot or theFE. See that by yourself.

*something all of them believe to be a mission.

PS- the copilot was acctualy a DC-8 experienced captain.PS2- sorry about my english. I'm a portuguese speaker."


My response in my next post.

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Friday, June 23, 2006

Hierarchy insanity

I received this email from an individual (who has asked to remain anonymous):

"I would like to share a recent experience of rankism I had when working on a new contract for a major UK utility company.

"I was at a handover meeting with a colleague from whom I was to take over the implementation of a project. I was expressing some concern at the timescale/resources which our boss had set and asking advice on how my colleague had proposed to complete the work. "Oh" she said "don't you do the work, get your team to do it for you, that's what I always do.

"The team in question consisted of a layer of first-line managers and clerical staff; I had noticed that they were miserable, overworked and very negative about the Company. When I thought about this advice in the context of the organisation I had observed over the short time I had been there, I realised that this was howthey probably operated right down the chain of command....The Chief Exec had probably told the Director to sort out such and such and the Director (notwanting to do the work herself) told the Head of Function to do it. The Head of Function didn't want to do any real work herself but told theoriginal manager (my colleague) to do it, which she had been doing until I came along, using the same management principle ie pushing it down!

"So I wonder how the first line supervisors had been accomplishing their workload? Doesn't take much guessing does it?

"This particular organisation had an appalling record of performance andcustomer service, but thought they were enlightened in their management mission to sort out a recalcitrant workforce - maybe these indicators were nothing to do with the practice I had witnessed... but somehow I suspect they were. The post-script to this story was that none of the executives involved were old farts - all were under 45, and the function involved was...Organisational Development!"

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