A Proven Aviation Safety Protocol Could Prevent Business Catastrophes — And Your Lawyers Should Lead the Way (Part II of II)

In Part I of this two-part series I introduced Crew Resource Management — CRM — the basic aviation safety protocol as an effective tool to stop corporate misconduct at its source.

Several years ago I represented a pilot in an NTSB investigation. Working with three airline captains to prepare the case — they introduced me to CRM.

The ten-fold reduction in major accidents that coincided with CRM’s adoption between 1979 and 2009 was impossible to argue with (see Part I).

And Captain Sully Sullenberger of US Air Flight 1549 had written: “It was our CRM training that enabled my crew … to land on the Hudson River … and then safely evacuate 150 passengers ….”

Both aviation and business involve human beings working together.

And aviation isn’t the only sector where intimidation discourages effective communication and stymies teamwork.

In Part I I detailed how responsible people inside General Motors had clammed up despite direct knowledge of an ignition switch’s deadly flaws. But this sort of dysfunction is not unique to GM.

Just last month I spoke with a credit professional in a money center bank who is neither allowed to initiate substantive discussions with anyone above his manager — nor with anyone outside his manager’s chain-of-command at his manager’s level or above.

Consider the following as a great first step towards CRM in a business setting.

Years ago I joined GE Rail Services in Chicago as a business development executive. Apart from the interview process I had no acquaintance with my new manager.

He reviewed the corporate ethics policy with me and concluded: “My door is always open if you have any concerns about dishonest conduct or legal violations”.

Pretty standard fare. But what came next surprised me.

“If you don’t trust me for some reason – feel free to talk with the CEO.”

“If you don’t feel comfortable talking with him – feel free to talk with the General Counsel.”

“If you don’t feel comfortable talking with the General Counsel – you might talk with the head of Human Resources.

He went on to name others in that Chicago office.

Then my new manager concluded:

“If it turns out that you don’t trust anyone in this building – here are two names at GE Headquarters – in Connecticut.”  

By its own rules GE and my new manager had painted themselves into a corner – a good corner. No one could threaten me with org chart formalities if I spoke up for GE’s integrity.

Of course there’s no such thing as a perfect framework against malfeasance. But it’s no surprise that I never faced any circumstance where I had to avail myself of this generous protection.

Finally, why suggest that it’s lawyers who should lead the way to adopting CRM in business?

First, because the really big value that the legal and regulatory function offers to business is to prevent liability rather than just react to it.

Second, because the first great step towards CRM adoption that helped me so much that first day at GE was led by a lawyer: GE’s pathbreaking 30-year general counsel Ben Heineman.

After meeting him a couple of years ago at the American Bar Association’s roll-out of his most recent book (The Inside Counsel Revolution: Resolving the Partner-Guardian Tension) — I sent him a letter thanks — since I’d long ago figured that my first-day experience at GE Rail Services had been the result of his leadership as general counsel.

In reply he modestly shared the credit with his team:

“To hear a story from a person new to GE that reflected what we were trying to do was so important because it suggests that we (all together) had an impact in creating an integrity culture.”

Culture.

Delta Airlines Captain Pat Mendenhall used same word to describe the findings from National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Aviation Administration accident study that led them to adopt Crew Resource Management for the airlines:

“When they starting analyzing accidents they were stunned.

“What they found — it wasn’t the airplanes that were crashing.

“It was the pilots … and the culture that we had … that was causing airplanes to literally fly into the ground.”

Crew Resource Management has already changed one sector’s culture. The business sector should try it.