Thursday, August 12, 2010

Is "Because I said so" ever a good reason?

My kids are not permitted to read this post. Ever. Imagine for a moment your life is in the hands of another person; maybe you’re on an operating table, maybe you’re on an airplane in bad weather. The situation is grim, and the outcome of the event is based in large part on the decisions made by someone in charge.

To be fair, architects are rarely consulted in such situations - and for good reason. By the time "an event" is in progress the architect’s work is done, has been done, and other folks are responsible for using, fixing, cutting, closing, or landing the subject of said architecting.

The core question is still valid; when the decisions have to be right, when the final solution is really important - life and death important - how do you want the process to unfold? Would you want a highly trained specialist with years of experience, such as a pilot, or a surgeon, or an architect directing the efforts by providing unquestioned leadership, a steady hand, and a cool mind?

This kind of venue, one led by a highly educated, trained-to-the-extreme, with years of hands-on, real world, practical experience is exactly the kind of situation that has led to countless medical errors, airplane crashes, and incalculable disasters.

In 1978, United Airlines flight 173 crashed outside of Portland Oregon killing eight people and injuring 24 others because the pilot was tying to figure out why the landing gear indicator light would not come on. Turns out, the gear was correctly in place - the light was broken. The pilot was so distracted by the light he didn’t see he was out of fuel - even though the fuel indicator, the low-fuel warning alarm, and the others in the cockpit all did their jobs correctly.

Prior to that incident, an airline pilot was considered almost God-like with a respect and authority that no one could question. As a result of the ‘78 crash, the airline industry developed a decision making strategy named Cockpit Resource Management (CRM). There’s a lot to it, but the salient point can be summarized as follows:

See it, say it, fix it.

The goal of CRM is to capitalize on the diversity of viewpoints that surround a critical decision making process. All of us are smarter than any of us. As a result of CRM, the number of pilot-caused crashes, a number that despite all training attempts refused to decline from 1940 to 1990, suddenly began decreasing.

But the interesting fact is that CRM has been employed in other venues with the same result. A study at the Nebraska Medical Center resulted in the percentage of "uneventful cases" of cardiac surgeries rising from 21% to 62%. This happens as a consequence of workers feeling free to question the decisions of those with more expertise and / or authority.

In our Architecture Review Board meetings we try to foster this “anyone can chime in” environment, and lots of times our experts are asked how and why we operate the way we do.  This all leads to better understanding, better decisions, architecture, and solutions.

No one is suggesting that we permit insubordinate, unprofessional, out-of-context chatter to invade our organizational hierarchy. And of course, time sensitive (a.k.a. ticking bomb scenarios) decisions must fall to the accountable entity. But, if CRM can make proven, measurable, critical improvements by fostering an environment where the thoughtful expression of diverse views are encouraged - then architects should be willing to listen to, accept, and incorporate the ideas and suggestions of others.

Follow by Email