HEROIC SENSEMAKING

A bit of synch yesterday: I’m listening to the audio book of Malcolm Galdwell’s Outliers and had reached the section in which the author digs underneath the tragic safety record of Korean Airlines for a spell of 10 years. His basic hypothesis is that cultural factors reinforced an overly deferential, hierarchical flight deck attitude. This in turn set up the potential for cascades of human error to impose fatal results on airliners.

One of Gladwell’s main points is concerned with behaviors on the flight deck which undermine real time judgment, communication between flight crew members, and, objectivity and interpretation of circumstances.

When I turned on the TV and happened upon the unfolding story of US Airways flight 1549, it became clear right away that the flight crew on the Airbus 320 were also outliers, having ditched a heavy airliner in the Hudson River without serious injuries.

At the same time I noted the gathering heroic interpretation of what was presumed to have happened in under four minutes between take-off and watery landing. The details of what actually happened will soon be known, but I’d like to highlight the role of flight engineer and co-pilot Jeff Skiles. I would be shocked to learn, especially after Gladwell’s account, that he didn’t play an equally saving role to that of the instantly legendary, pilot and air crew captain, Chesley Sully Sullenberger.

The work of Karl Weick, one of my main guys, comes to mind too. Sullenberger has a sideline company, Safety Reliability Methods, Inc. On the about page is this:

Safety Reliability Methods, Inc. (SRM) was created to apply the latest advances in safety and high performance and high reliability processes to organizations in a variety of fields.

Many of these advances have their genesis in the ultra-safe world of commercial aviation. Others have been developed as a result of studies of high-risk, high performance environments such as aircraft carrier flight deck operations and the energy industry.

When these techniques are applied on an organizational and individual basis, they create a robust, error-trapping system that significantly benefits the bottom line.

Weick invented the discipline of sensemaking in social psychology. One of his books is titled, Managing the Unexpected. I’ll look forward to Dr. Weick’s weighing in on the elegant case of flight 1549. A lot had to go right and the management of all the vectors of event, sense, decision, and response, no doubt, was a two person affair in the cockpit, and a collaboration elsewhere on the jet as it came to a rest south of East 40th street.

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