“For some years I have been afflicted with the belief that flight is possible to man.” In pursuit of any available data and information on the topic, Wilbur Wright wrote this line to Octave Chanute, a contemporary and eminent pioneer in the field of aeronautics, on May 13th, 1900.
Because Wilbur wanted to fly, which he could not achieve without any assistance, he set out to build a flying-machine; the vehicle for the pursuit of his purpose. Together with his younger brother Orville, he decided to break-up the project in three parts:
1. Creating a wing that would produce enough lift to carry a person.
2. Discovering a control mechanism for steering the flying-machine.
3. Adding an engine to make flight sustainable.
The biggest challenge for all pioneers was conquering the issue of control. This was such a hard nut to crack that most pioneers settled for creating an inherently stable machine that could fly in straight lines. However, the bicycle mechanics Wilbur and Orville knew from personal experience that an inherently unstable machine, such as the bicycle, would find its stability in its interaction with the human intellect. In other words, Wilbur and Orville were comfortable with the unstable nature of their flying-machine and it didn’t take them very long to figure out the three-axis control system of Yaw, Pitch and Roll that is still used in every single aircraft today. All aircraft derive their stability from people operating the control system, including those equipped with intermediary technology such a fly-by-wire, flight-management computer or auto-pilot. The Wright brothers were right!
How is this relevant to executives of commercial organizations? Well, the organization is also a vehicle for the pursuit of a specific purpose. Furthermore, organizations are inherently unstable and need people for their guidance and control; after all, financial statements do not balance themselves! No employee can be allowed as a passenger who’s there just for the ride. No matter how much technology you have deployed, people control the business and they steer their organization towards success or failure.
The fact that people make mistakes is part of the vehicle’s inherent instability and this should not be remedied by “Zero-Tolerance” practices or replacing people by technology but by pro-active adjustments to the conditions under which humans work. Extensive studies into human error have concluded that “Human error is not the cause of failure but the symptom of a failing system”.
Who design, build, maintain, update, operate, manage, improve, change, grow, audit, legalize, finance and market that failing system? Right, people do! How does one turn a failing system into a successful system? Right, by engaging your employees; all of them! Do not turn anyone into a passenger who’s there just for the ride by low-balling their importance; if they’re not on the team you’d probably don’t need them. Who’s taking the lead? That must be the Chief Executive Officer! Happy landings.