Falling Upward

The same old story over and over again!

Once again, it is demonstrated that for certain members of the business class, failure is simply not possible. I call the phenomenon, “Falling Upward.” White males of the upper class are simply unstoppable. It does not matter the size of the disaster, the width of the incompetence or the cries of the dead. They prosper. We tired business ethics experts will be studying and explaining this horrifying series of disasters to new generations of students. They will ask who paid for the mistakes of the CEO. And I will tell them, “Everyone but the people responsible, passengers died, the company and its community suffered but the CEO got a golden parachute of an incredible size and magnitude.” And that will be the story.

What in the name of God, are we doing? Shouldn’t abject failure have a punishment? There are hundreds of dead people and hundreds of aircraft sitting on the ground unflyable.

How did all this happen? That’s an interesting story. Boeing was presented with the choice of building a new aircraft or heavily modifying an old one. They opted for the latter. There were financial incentives for not having any new training. So, they added new engines to the chassis and told their buyers that the only new training necessary could be done a laptop or even an I-pad. The weight had shifted forward and that made flying the plane tricky, so they added a computer program that threw the nose down when a single sensor was triggered. And for an unknown reason decided to put it on a cycle where it repeated every few seconds. So, the pilot was flying a plane that should the sole sensor malfunction repeatedly tried to fly into the ground.

Now you may have noticed that the decision to not design a new aircraft was based on money, and in fact that was the key decision making at all points in the development of this modified chassis. The company decided to make an aircraft not on the basis of engineering judgment but on how much money they could save. And they took an aircraft with a very fine safety record and designed a more lethal version.

The CEO went in the direction of the numbers guys, their judgement, their calls. And when you do that and take it away from the engineers, bad things happen. Numbers guys are basically fools. I admit they are useful fools. You see them in every part of modern corporate decision making – television shows, movies, companies of all sorts – and they mess up all the time. Why, because numbers are only one aspect of decision making. Planes require people expert in the science of engineering to fly and keep aircraft safe.

In my strange world, experts particularly scientists should make as many decisions as possible but we don’t live in that world. We live in the one were the bean counters rule and people die because bean counting is only one part of decision making.

James Pilant

2 thoughts on “Falling Upward

  1. Just another example of a company using cost-benefit analysis to decide ethical issues rather than Rights Theory, where the issue is passengers have a right to get into a plan and not expect to crash, no less have engine problems. Pilots have a right to expect the Boeing 737 to operate as intended. Essentially, what’s going on here is a form of self-serving bias. From a behavioral ethics point of view, the behavior of Boeing executives is a manifestation of ‘ethical blind spots’ or the gaps between one’s intended and actual behavior. In other words, what we should do and what we actually do may be different because of these cognitive limitations. The blind spots exist for a variety of reasons, including self-interested motivations (like pleasing the boss) which exert undue pressure at the time of the decision increasing the likelihood that these outside influences negatively affect ethical decision-making. In effect these pressures might cloud the ethical issues and cause them to fade in the background. Perhaps the actions at Boeing are even more sinister. This is for business ethicists to debate and teach their students the lesson of putting profits over people.


Comments are closed.