Some of the information the National Transportation Safety Board just released on the Asiana Airlines crash in San Francisco really surprised me. So did an expert's comment that the accident, along with dozens of similar ones, was probably preventable.
What really struck me is how the same issues and lessons apply in the business world. Don't get me wrong. I'm not going to sit here in my ivory control tower and second-guess how to land a wide-body jet. I'm just saying that there are interesting similarities between this and similar incidents and common business failure modes. Here are three lessons for avoiding them.
1. There's a downside to "command and control." Clearly, discipline and chain of command are important on aircraft of any kind. That said, the airline industry appears to have a long history of accidents that, according to Dr. Cass Howell, associate Dean at the Daytona Beach College of Aviation, could have been avoided if people weren't afraid to speak up in situations where safety is at risk.
"There are dozens and dozens of accidents that were preventable had someone been able to speak up when they should have, but they were reluctant to do so for any number of reasons, including looking stupid or offending the captain," said Howell, a former Marine pilot who's no stranger to cockpit discipline.
One of the most common causes of business failure is when leaders, in one way or another, discourage people from speaking their minds, especially on important matters. CEOs who hire and listen to yes-men who sugarcoat the truth and tell them what they want to hear are doomed to fail, sooner or later.
Groupthink, breathing your own fumes, drinking your own Kool-Aid--call it what you want, corporate cultures that encourage and protect the status quo are bad news.
2. Keep a razor-like focus on critical priorities. The Federal Aviation Administration requires all pilots to be in the cockpit and observing "sterile cockpit" rules during takeoff and landing, when something is most likely to go wrong. The idea is to keep everyone in the cockpit focused on nothing but "airspeed and descent profile," according to former US Airways pilot and accident investigator John Cox.
According to information just released by the NTSB, the Asiana plane's speed dropped below 137 knots--the optimum speed for landing--34 seconds before impact when the altitude was still at 500 feet. At 200 feet and 16 seconds out, its airspeed had dropped to 118 knots and the runways' Precision Approach Path Indicator lights were all red, indicating the plane was coming in much too low.
That may not sound like a lot of time, but it is plenty of time to take some sort of action. And yet, there's no indication yet that any of the four pilots on board ever declared an emergency. And the engines apparently didn't begin to increase power until three seconds out, just after the "stick shaker" began to vibrate, warning of an imminent stall.
Look, I'm no pilot so I have no idea what kind of pressure they're under. Nevertheless, that's their job. The same goes for executives and business leaders. No matter how much pressure you're under, when it comes to critical priorities, key decisions, and operating metrics, keep a razor-like focus, keep your eye on the ball, and be prepared to act.
3. Be aware of and complement your weaknesses. According to NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman, the pilot was just halfway through his Boeing 777 training and landing at San Francisco Airport for the first time. Not only that, but this was his co-pilot's first trip as a flight instructor. Granted, they were both experienced wide-body jet pilots, but in hindsight, I would not have paired them up.
Likewise, executives and business leaders need to be aware of their weaknesses and ensure they complement them with other's strengths. For example, entrepreneurs often hire executives with experience scaling and growing companies, as Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin did when they brought in Eric Schmidt as CEO.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg knew he needed a seasoned operating executive early on, so he hired longtime Google vice president Sheryl Sandberg as chief operating officer in 2008. That, like the Schmidt hire, turned out to be a very good move.
All too frequently, start-up founders and small business owners are either unwilling to admit to their weaknesses or think they can do it all. Big mistake. In my experience, the number one pitfall for entrepreneurs is simply this: they don't know what they don't know.