Managers owe themselves post-mortems

Businesses that adopt this avoidance policy deprive themselves of valuable information.

In his book, “The Power of Negative Thinking,” Bob Knight attributes much of his success to his attention to mistakes. His successes as a basketball coach were many, including the 1975-76 perfect season for his Indiana University team, a feat not duplicated since. He used to place a sign in the team locker room that read, “Victory favors the team making the fewest mistakes.”

Post-mortems are unpleasant and many managers avoid them. Those who don’t bother with them explain by saying something like, ““we don’t want to waste time by dwelling on the past.”

w It is a competitive world that extracts a price for mistakes. Legendary baseball coach Casey Stengel, who managed the New York Yankees to five consecutive World Series championships, once said, “Most ball games are lost, not won.”

Sports analogies come naturally to business for a simple reason: competition. Anyone who thinks that competition in today’s business environment is less intense than in college basketball or major league baseball hasn’t been paying attention. It is a merciless world of elbows, shoves, and surprises in the pursuit of profit. And if a company’s management doesn’t learn from its stumbles and mistakes, the odds of its success aren’t very good.

It’s true that an unstructured post-mortem can turn into a time-wasting, finger-pointing exercise, but unstructured meetings themselves are generally a sign of distracted management.

CEOs need to plan a format for post-mortems and enforce it. This will help focus the discussion about what went wrong, how it could have been avoided and what we have to do to prevent a reoccurrence. There is no room for fragile flowers. We all have to face up to our errors as well as our successes. It’s called teamwork.

We do not know much about the Boeing Co.’s views or practices regarding post-mortems but they don’t seem to be working for them. What began with commercial and military airplane delivery delays – promises made but not kept – ended with airliner crashes and the deaths of passengers and crews.

As Boeing struggles to fix the technical problem with the 737 MAX, a post-mortem would probably reveal that management has to fix its internal problems, too. Otherwise, it will end up playing Whack-a-Mole with a harvest of problems.

Systemic problems are particularly damaging to Boeing because of the structure of its market. There are fewer “second chances” available. On the demand side, there are just three segments:The airlines; the Defense Dept. and its equivalent in allied countries; and, indirectly, the flying public. Boeing is in trouble with all three.

The number of its competitors in the large passenger and freight market has shrunk to the irreducible number: Airbus. The number of competitors for defense contracts is small, and the Pentagon, for national security reasons, favors sharing amongst the competitors in most large contracts.

What is the cause of Boeing’s problem, exactly? The obvious answer is that its planes are crashing or were until the 737 MAX aircraft were grounded. If you were Boeing’s CEO you would want to know whether the faulty stall-avoidance computer system was a “one-off” problem or would be followed by more quality-control failures. A systemic quality problem could quickly put the company out of business.

A thorough post-mortem could possibly determine that quality control has become a systemic problem…and is an existential threat to the company.

Figuring out how its labor force fits into the quality picture will be a significant part of the post-mortem and a key element of the solution.

The late-delivery/quality-control nexus reflects a classic conflict between labor and marketing. It has been a part of economic theory for over a century and yet as current as the “Dilbert” comic strip in your morning newspaper. Marketing makes promises of lower prices and unrealistic delivery schedules that provide the nutrients for an increase in production mistakes. The post-mortem problem, though, is to determine what are reasonable prices and realistic production schedules. And it is a lot more complicated than simply quoting the movie line, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”

A key part of the post-mortem analysis will be to determine how much the visible and invisible incentives in Boeing’s organizational structure are affecting delivery dates and quality. The agenda should also look specifically at how delivery dates are calculated in order to examine the effects on quality standards.

It may seem premature to propose a post-mortem process and mistake avoidance policy. The available information about Boeing’s quality control issue is still fragmentary. But there is a faint scent of systemic error and that needs to be taken seriously, and quickly.

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