March 21, 2024

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Navigating turbulence: Boeing’s lessons in risk management

In his latest column for SHP, Kevin Barr draws learning from Boeing’s recent safety challenges.

In the realm of risk management, aviation has historically set the benchmark, turning its failures into powerful learning opportunities. Boeing’s recent string of safety incidents, while concerning, offers invaluable lessons for health and safety professionals and risk managers across industries. By examining these systemic issues as a collective rather than isolated events, we gain insight into the crucial importance of maintaining rigorous safety standards and the potential consequences of their neglect.

CREDIT: Mark Mercer/Alamy Stock Photo

A series of serious failings

Boeing’s experiences underscore a recurring theme of quality and safety oversight, evidencing the need for continuous vigilance in risk management practices.

The recent incident in Oregon, where a Boeing 737-800 landed missing a fuselage panel, is but one of several incidents raising alarm. This pattern includes the Alaska Airlines flight where an unused cabin door blew out, and the distressing event of a Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner unexpectedly dropping in flight, among others. These incidents highlight a worrying trend and serve as case studies of the cascading effects of systemic lapses in safety protocols and quality assurance.

The diverse nature of these incidents points to widespread challenges within Boeing’s operations, from manufacturing defects to procedural errors, emphasising the complexity of risk management in large high-risk environments.

The FAA’s intervention and Boeing’s strategic adjustments in response to these incidents illustrate the dynamic between regulatory oversight and corporate responsibility in risk management. The FAA’s stringent measures and Boeing’s organisational changes reflect a concerted effort to address these systemic issues, showcasing the critical role of both external and internal checks in maintaining safety standards.

Stakeholder confidence

Maintaining stakeholder confidence is paramount, with each incident serving as a potential erosion of trust in Boeing’s commitment to safety — a core concern for risk managers in any industry.

The apprehensions expressed by affected families and passengers highlight the broader implications of safety incidents on stakeholder trust, underscoring the need for transparency and accountability in addressing failings.

Should stakeholder confidence not be improved, it could not be long before Boeing goes the route of other airlines such as ValuJet who after a series of safety failings, never recovered from the reputational damage.

Fostering culture

Boeing’s saga offers several key takeaways for health and safety professionals and risk managers. First and foremost is the necessity of fostering a culture that prioritises safety and quality above all. This entails not only adhering to existing standards but also proactively seeking ways to enhance them. Continuous learning and adaptation are paramount, as evidenced by Boeing’s challenges and responses.

Moreover, the Boeing incidents illuminate the significance of transparency and open communication with all stakeholders, including employees, customers, and regulatory bodies. Building and maintaining trust is essential, particularly in the aftermath of safety incidents. This trust is grounded in demonstrable commitments to safety, rigorous investigation of any failings, and the implementation of comprehensive corrective actions.

Systemic thinking

Lastly, these episodes remind us of the importance of systemic thinking in risk management. Identifying and mitigating risks requires a holistic approach that considers the entire ecosystem of an organisation’s operations. Health and safety professionals and risk managers can apply these lessons by conducting thorough risk assessments, fostering a culture of safety and continuous improvement, and engaging in open dialogue with stakeholders about risk management practices.

Boeing’s experiences, while specific to aviation, offer universal lessons in the critical importance of robust risk management systems, the continuous pursuit of safety excellence, and the value of stakeholder trust. As professionals dedicated to safeguarding health and safety, there is much we can learn from Boeing’s turbulence to apply in our own spheres, ensuring that we navigate our challenges with the same commitment to learning and improvement.


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