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 What Boeing Can Learn From Oncologists and Hackers

Boeing is dealing with the aftermath of two 737 MAX8 crashes in less than six months, causing over 300 deaths. All MAX8 aircraft have been grounded worldwide, the stock has taken a huge hit, and customers are now canceling upcoming orders.

How did the world’s largest manufacturer of commercial and military aircraft, with an outstanding safety record for decades, get themselves into this mess? Air travel is still the safest form of transportation. It’s just that when an airplane falls out of the sky, hundreds of people die. When it happens twice in a short time for the same reason, people panic.

One theory is that Boeing over-automated the aircraft. By taking control out of the hands of pilots to prevent stalls, they may have inadvertently created a situation that resulted in an automated system that may be causing more crashes than it prevents. Boeing also tried to simplify training—with some pilots only getting minimal training on the new aircraft via iPads. Did their efforts to get the plane to market with as little upgrade cost to airlines as possible backfire?

Perhaps the real answer is about mindset. If a new aircraft passed the prescribed tests, Boeing (and the FAA) deemed it to be airworthy…except it wasn’t.

Both oncologists and hackers will tell you betting that things are OK because you don’t immediately see a problem can often lead to disaster. There was a time when a doctor who ordered a mammogram or CT scan presumed that if no lumps or growths were seen, the patient was healthy. Now good radiologists and oncologists presume that there’s cancer lurking in every corner—until they can prove otherwise. They know that what they see is the full picture. The consequences of missing a few rogue cancer cells hiding somewhere may be the difference between life and death.

Top financial institutions take the same approach. They hire groups of hackers to break into their systems—to expose flaws no one knew were there. They know that just because no one has broken in so far that doesn’t mean the flaw isn’t there. It just means it hasn’t been discovered—yet. And finding out through a huge data breach can have severe consequences.

What Boeing should have done was hired the aviation equivalent of smart oncologists or hackers. Turn lose the most highly experienced pilots you can find and let them have at it in a simulator. Put the aircraft through its paces in the worst conditions they can imagine. Then go to younger, less experienced flight crews and see how they handle the same scenarios—do they take the correct actions, or do new issues arise?

Good user experience testing makes a critical difference. How are these systems actually being used? Are there learning issues for flight crews who are not native English speakers? Do experienced pilots expect the aircraft to behave in a way that may not reflect what actually happens? What are the unintended consequences of taking decisions like this away from the flight crew?

We can shake our heads at what Boeing didn’t do, but let’s not forget that it’s all too easy for organizations in almost any industry to make these same kinds of mistakes. We need to take these lessons to heart for our own businesses, rather than gloating at Boeing’s predicament.

Where are the potential gotchas in your systems, your products, your services, your delivery methods? Have you done a comprehensive scan from top to bottom to ensure no fatal flaws are hiding just under the surface? Are you hacking your own systems to find the weakest links?

When the first hint of a potential problem arrives, take it seriously. Don’t wait for the same issue to occur twice or more before taking appropriate action. Presuming a fatal flaw won’t occur is a strategy that just doesn’t fly.

Linda J. Popky, Founder of Leverage2Market Associates, is an award-winning Silicon Valley-based strategic marketing expert who is the author of the book Marketing Above the Noise: Achieve Strategic Advantage with Marketing that Matters and the Executive Director of the Society for the Advancement of Consulting (SAC). Follow her on Twitter at @popky #mktgabove.

Linda Popky

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