How Better Change Management Could Have Saved the Boeing 737 MAX

Written By: Bob Blanchette
Date: August 16, 2019

Organizational Change Management (OCM) is not a one size fits all concept, but I couldn’t’ help from wondering if it could have made a difference with the major issues Boeing is encountering with its 737 MAX airliners.

Boeing’s problems center around a Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), which is safety software installed in these new jets intended to combat the risk of stalling. We know that new technology can be challenging and sometimes even disruptive. The purpose of OCM is to inform, involve and help ensure new processes and procedures go smoothly, which can help mitigate this potential disruption.

The purpose of organizational change management in any major digital transformation

Some of the major goals of change management include:

  • Reducing risk when introducing procedural or technology changes
  • Informing others about changing work content (or workflow) and how will it impact tasks
  • Engaging others to get their opinions, concerns and suggestions
  • Evaluating and addressing users’ ability and willingness to change
  • A multipronged approach to training
  • Ongoing communications about timing, changes and challenges
  • Transforming organizational culture, which is often the most overlooked component of transformations

These and other change workstreams apply to transformations of all sorts. The question is how well change is managed throughout the transformation, which is unfortunately often not very well.

How organizational change management relates to Boeing’s 737 MAX jets

So, if we look at some of the goals of OCM mentioned above, then relate it to what actions took place with the introduction of the 737 MAX jets, here’s some of the things we know:

  • Pilots have publicly stated they were not given enough information about the new safety system and communication was lacking. Boeing has stated it released few details about the MCAS system fearing it could inundate pilots with more technical data than needed.
  • Boeing promised its largest airline customer to keep pilot training to a minimum as not to disrupt operations. Boeing agreed to pay this airline $1 million per aircraft if simulator time was required. This type of commitment is somewhat unprecedented.
  • Some airlines have stated Boeing should have been the driver of any training mandates and not the airlines themselves. Pilots further indicate little to no mention of this new system appeared in their manuals.

Sidebar: We sometimes see this in ERP initiatives, where a business will think the software company or value-added reseller (VAR) is responsible for the training. Joint ownership is often a best practice. The more involved a business is in the training, the less chance for misalignment, which is the secret killer of digital transformations.

It has been reported that 737 MAX airplanes were flying before any flight simulators were ready for use by the airlines, and when simulators were ready, they couldn’t replicate the MCAS malfunction.

The tragedy of two airline crashes remain under investigation and in the news. MCAS was designed to enhance aircraft safety. What’s in question is its usability, control and ability for pilots to recognize and respond instantaneously when an MCAS malfunction occurs. Many pilots reportedly feel the software, as initially launched, was unrealistic to control when malfunctioning (too erratic when encountering control issues and warning system sounds).

Bottom line: organizational change management is critical

In my years of writing about the importance of OCM, and its connection to why ERP software implementations sometimes fail, I often feel the message is not taken seriously enough or prioritized high enough. OCM is a pillar of success that supports any major technology initiative.

I’ll let you draw your own conclusions if OCM might have helped with the MCAS debacle. In the meantime, you will want to make sure that you have an effective change strategy for your transformation. As we have learned over the years, too many clients fail to identify the missing pieces of their organizational change management plans.

Companie such as Third Stage can help you ensure that your change initiatives are enabling more successful transformations for your organization. Contact us to discuss your project – we’re here to help!

Bob Blanchette
Bob brings a creative blend of understanding operational benefit and navigating employee resistance to change, ultimately helping organization realize success and benefit through maximizing the effectiveness of people. He holds a successful track record of HR leadership and promoting fair and unbiased outcomes.
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