When bad things happen to good organizations
Friday, November 14, 2014
I recently spent several months looking into a rather baffling fatal helicopter accident. A well-trained pilot was flying a new helicopter outfitted with all the latest safety bells and whistles. The pilot worked for a top-rate organization that is a well-known industry innovator in safety management and perennially recognized for excellence by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Sifting through various court documents — there were a pile of lawsuits as one might suspect — and later the official accident report of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), one thing became crystal clear: There was no single cause for this tragedy.
Sure, the official finding was pilot error, but there's more to it. The pilot, his company and even the FAA all cut corners on the path to this accident. It was an anomaly to be sure. To quote singer Lyle Lovett: "It's such a shame, cause you've been so good up to now."
Bad things happen to good people all the time. We've all seen it even in our own families. It happens with shocking regularity to big companies: tainted Tylenol, exploding oil rigs and hacked bank accounts, for example. The question, particularly for supervisors, is what do you do when it happens and how do you recover from it?
First, put outside eyes on the problem. In this case it wasn't hard: The NTSB, lawyers for the deceased and insurers were all Johnny-On-The-Spot. The company also did a mandatory flight operations standdown after the crash. Anytime there is an aircraft accident, there will be no shortage of outside evaluation. You need to be ready for a lot of strange people to start walking around your hangar and offices.
Second, be penitent. This is not the time to hide behind a defensive line of lawyers with the pro forma "no comment." While being a party to the NTSB investigation does limit what you can say, there is no NTSB prohibition against heartfelt regret and a sincere expression of concern for the victims and their families and doing what you can to help them. With regard to the latter, besides being the right thing to do, it's federal law under the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act of 1996.
Finally, after the NTSB report is issued, candidly confess to any negligence or wrongdoing and thoroughly explain the steps you have taken or will take to rectify the problem. Yes, this will give your lawyers apoplexy. No one said the road to credibility is an easy one.
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