Seek, Speak, Listen – the Boeing story

How often do people in your organisation disagree, reveal faults, deliver bad news on that high-stakes launch, without fearing retaliation or push back? Not always.. depends… maybe.. you might say. Unfortunately, a major tragedy a few years ago serves as a reminder that when courageous collaboration, trust and safely speaking up is not prioritized in companies, it can have disastrous consequences for human lives. 

Remember the 737 Max fleet of aircrafts launched by Boeing and touted as most advanced in aerodynamic design, technology and fuel emissions? Between October 2018-March 2019, 346 people lost their lives when these aircrafts crashed in two separate incidents in Indonesia and Ethiopia. Investigations revealed that the cause of the crashes was faulty flight control software and a lowering of engineering standards, in order to lower cost of production to retain better profits for the company.

It may seem that Boeing’s problem was technology, design flaws, and commercial pressures. However, the core problem was how human beings were engaging with each other across the organisation,  in the midst of complexity. To us at The Core Questin, it reveals the classic case of a surviving organisation where leadership and teams are fragmented, not aligned, there are low levels of trust and collaboration, work is transactional and purpose does not drive performance.  

Crash investigation reports and mountains of internal company memos reveal that the culture at Boeing had morphed over time. It was no longer a safe space for employees to speak up or disagree on the design and production schedule of the 737 Max. This is ironic for a company that touted safety as its North Star for years, and seemed to have lost its most important currency –  trust, from both internal and external stakeholders.

How does an organisation rebuild after such a tragedy? 

After the disaster, Boeing conceived of “Seek, Speak, Listen” as a culture change effort to embed candour as an organisation-wide habit.  

  • Seek” where employees are encouraged to actively seek out potential safety hazards, even if minor or insignificant and report them.  
  • Speak” encourages employees to speak up and report any safety concerns without fear of retribution. Boeing had to create safe spaces for employees to feel comfortable raising concerns and knowing that they are valued.
  • Listen” puts the onus on the organisation to be responsive as employees will speak up only when they are confident that their safety concerns are taken seriously. This required the leadership to actively engage with and listen to employees’ concerns and be transparent in the actions taken to address them.  

The areas Boeing chose to rebuild point to our research on dimensions that are core to creating Thriving organisations – trust, connection, courageous collaboration, a sense of accomplishment, and positivity, to name a few. To learn more about what we have discovered as core dimensions of Leadership, Teaming and Organisation systems that make organisations future-ready, resilient under uncertainty, and poised for growth visit the Thrive Project.

Is your leadership and teaming culture living up to its potential? We can help you diagnose this and discover your growth edge to becoming a thriving organisation, so please reach out.

About Mandira Kala

Mandira is a qualified leadership coach. She is a graduate in Psychology from LSR, New Delhi, MSW from TISS, Mumbai, PhD in Public Policy from University of Massachusetts, Boston. She is passionate about developing leaders who contribute to their workplace by transforming mindsets, creating a culture of cultivating and harnessing people potential, and beating the odds to deliver beyond imagination.

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