SERVICE/MAINTENANCE BY ANDREW MCCOY & FRED SARGENT
In October 1935, Boeing test pilots
brought a prototype to a “fly-off” conducted by the U.S. Army Air Corps in
Dayton, Ohio, expecting to prove its
clear superiority while military brass and
executives from competing plane manufacturers observed. Every major aircraft
manufacturer was there to vie for contracts that would drive the war effort and
the future of aviation. Boeing’s superior
design meant the 299 could carry more
bombs and still fly faster and farther
than rival models. This competition was
expected to demonstrate an easy choice
for officials witnessing it.
As the plane began its presumptive
victory flight, easily speeding down
the tarmac and climbing into the air, it
abruptly turned on its side and crashed
into the ground.
Luckily, the story did not end there.
While an initial setback to Boeing, the
military decided to purchase a few Model
299 planes for more extensive testing.
Everyone wanted to know why such a
sophisticated piece of equipment with so
much potential did not work as expected.
According to a newspaper account at the
time, some officials had already concluded
that the Model 299 “was too much plane
for one person to fly.” While acknowledging that this next-stage aircraft had
its own new set of complexities, Boeing
management was fully confident that it
was possible to successfully pilot it in and
out of combat missions.
The solution that Boeing concocted
was truly novel and set a precedent for
mastering seemingly complex working
environments in every walk of life. As
opposed to adding increasingly strin-
gent levels of training or responsibility
to beleaguered air crews, the company
decided on an elegantly straightforward
way through which everyone in any field
could be equipped to confront complex-
ity in the routine execution of their work.
It was one of Boeing’s greatest contributions to organizational management, and
it began as the pilot’s checklist for Model
299, soon to be known as the B- 17 bomber.
In “The Checklist Manifesto: How
to Get Things Right,” author Atul Gawande retells the B- 17 bomber story and
many others as part of a treatise about
two major forces that work against
all complex environments. First, we
are sometimes—not said unkindly—
“ignorant,” simply because science and
knowledge have not yet caught up with
the complexity of our work. Second,
we can sometimes be “inept,” which is
to say that we might indeed possess the
know-how we need, yet we fail to apply
Checklists enable us to apply our
onboard knowledge properly, reducing
error from the get-go.
Gawande cites results that are striking
in a number of fields [in the successful
use of checklists]. In routine matters, we
often overlook items that we deem com-
mon, even unnecessary. We think we
know better; our expertise exempts us
from the need for discipline in mundane
steps. The fact is, complex systems con-
tain many larger problems that originate
from errors in the “mundane.” Engineers
call these “all-or-nothing” processes,
where the larger effort fails if you get the
basics wrong in the first place.
Checklists have been proven to reduce
error for many industries, including medicine, aviation, restaurants, and, of course,
construction. Service work for electrical
contractors provides a perfect environment as well.
We previously listed three essentials to
success for an electrical contracting service operation: the right organizational
structure; staffing, including training
and education for the separate business
unit; and automation of construction services to ensure sustainable profits. In the
complex environment of service work,
basic reminders across the organization,
incorporating the latest training knowledge and using the power of automation
can remove basic errors from becoming
“all-or-nothing” losses. Those inefficien-cies can truly hurt the bottom line and
are avoidable. Electrical safety errors
can quickly go beyond the mundane to
We can learn from another industry as well. Gawande tells us about a
restaurant well known for its food and
even more famous for the loyalty of its
customers. Not only does the kitchen’s
automated system create checklists of
daily procedures and recipes, it also
tracks customers’ allergies, food preparation preferences and special occasions.
Imagine your service electricians always
arriving on time, ready to go to work with
the right information and material, and
with a reminder about the customer’s
special preferences. Working with a
well-developed checklist system will
surely lead to a longer customer list.
The Well-Developed Checklist
A life-changing lesson learned from an airplane crash
IN 1935, Boeing Corp. would have never predicted it was about to make one of its greatest
contributions not only to the aviation industry but to every other line of work as well.
Boeing’s Model 299, nicknamed the “Flying Fortress,” was the clear leader in the
War Department’s selection process for the next generation of long-range bombers.
MCCOY is associate professor in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies at Virginia
Tech. Contact him at email@example.com. SARGENT, a 40-year veteran of the electrical
contracting business based in Pittsburgh, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. T H