Hierarchical, top-down management, with its one-way information flow, presents huge risks in industries where lives are at stake. Increasingly, this is becoming passe.
First it was the TQM (Total Quality Management) instituted by the Japanese for manufacturing. One of the components of TQM was kaizen, or continuous improvement. This stressed the involvement of everyone, not just top management, in process control and improvement.
Now comes an article from ABC News on the incredible four and a half year, 50-million-flight safety record of zero U.S. commercial airline fatalities. This is almost hard to imagine, for a system as complex and diverse as it is, that loads millions of people into aluminum tubes and hurls them through the stratosphere at 550 mph and brings them safely back to earth.
According to the article, one of the chief factors in this incredible record has been removal of airline captains from the role of absolute authority. It is called CRM, (Crew Resource Management). Pilot error has all but been eliminated through the encouragement of feedback from subordinates. Put another way, unchallenged authority can be seen to have been not only a bad idea, but fatal for literally thousands of people over the years.
In a nutshell, CRM is an absolute reversal of the iconoclastic cockpit culture we used to have up to the mid 1980’s, and if CRM had been imposed on “Star Trek’s” Captain Kirk, it would have cost him his command.
Kirk, just like most airline pilots before the mid-80’s (me included), was taught to be omnipotent and infallible and in need of no one’s advice, let alone that coming from a subordinate crewmember. To be a Captain Kirk, you had to be ready, willing, and able to assume that you not only could be perfect — despite being human — but that you were, in fact, perfect. Therefore, the act of shutting up a subordinate by waving a finger in his or her face with the angry retort, “When I want your !&@*$% advice, I’ll ASK for it!” was just part of the paradigm. Captains were God, and everyone else followed respectfully — or else.
CRM changed all that. The principles grew from a series of catastrophic crashes in the seventies in which the major causal factors revolved around one imperfect human mind controlling every decision in a culture that discouraged comment or correction.
One of those disasters occurred in the Canary Islands on March 27, 1977, when the chief pilot of one of the world’s best airlines (KLM) made an unchallenged mistake and started his takeoff into fog without takeoff clearance. The resulting collision between two 747’s killed 583.
I think this principle also has application in the arena of spiritual leadership. It is the unchallenged authority of a chosen book or personality that leads religious people to abdicate their mental independence. Such authority causes otherwise intelligent people to ignore the obvious, and keep their lips zipped in fear of eternal damnation.
If humanity is incapable of giving up religion, at least congregants should insist that so-called spiritual leaders submit to feedback from the congregation. After all, if such power sharing is used at the highest levels of business, why shouldn’t it be used for the organizations which, in many people’s minds, hold the keys to eternity?