Flying Lessons: How stories from Aviation can make us better Managers – Final installment

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By Jim Myers

In this, the final installment of our six part series, we look at how we as managers can incorporate change into our organizations to take advantage of the lessons learned so far.          

The picture of Boeing’s iconic 737 airliner represents a culmination of aviation lessons for business managers.  In microcosm, the 737 represents the result of five activities all organizations must do to be viable.  Boeing observed their environment, as well as, communicated, organized and delivered a product that it has improved over time.  The ability to Observe, Communicate, Organize, and Deliver are crucial to short-term success.  In the long term, the ability to Improve and, by necessity, change gains importance. 

In this series we have looked at the value of accurate observations and how they lead to opportunities; communication of knowledge using a structured approach; organization of teams in the context of business  needs; delivery of value through the natural process of learning and finally improvement as an integration of organizational attributes.  Each lesson represents an exception to ‘business as usual’.  If the lessons are to have value to you in the approach you take to managing operations, it is worthwhile to look at the subject of organizational change.                 

John F. McDonnell, of the McDonnell Douglas Corporation (at the time of its merger with Boeing in 1997, the third largest aerospace and defense company in the world), made this observation about organizational change: 

“While it is difficult to change a company that is struggling, it is next to impossible to change a company that is showing all the outward signs of success.  Without the spur of a crisis or a period of great stress, most organizations – like most people – are incapable of changing the habits and attitudes of a lifetime.”

McDonnell’s observations provide three insights: First, nothing breeds compliancy and satisfaction with the status quo more than success because that very success validates current approaches to business.  Second, a crisis and associated heighten levels of stress provide an opportunity for change, but often at an inopportune time.   Third, habits and attitudes develop over a long period, becoming firmly engrained in the cultural fabric and as a result resistant to change.  

Success, then, is a double-edged sword.  Most businesses owners work hard to meet their goals and become successful.  The tried and tested approaches applied to solve problems become proven and an integral part of the company culture, defining how things are done.  Attitudes are the mental manifestation of an organization’s culture, just as habits are the physical result of the same learned behavior.  Without those attitudes and habits, and the continuity and predictability they provide, a business would soon regress into chaos.  As well, attitudes and habits also create a rigidity that prevents change in the face of new circumstances.   

Edgar Schein, culture researcher and professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, described culture as:

A pattern of basic assumptions that a given group has

invented, discovered, or developed in learning to cope with its 

problems of external adaptation and internal integration, and 

that have worked well enough to be considered valid, and, therefore, 

taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.  

James G. Hunt built upon Schein’s work developing an ‘Onion Layer’ model of organizational culture (see diagram).  The model presents organizational culture in the form of layers – the core hidden from view progressing to an outer layer that is easily visible.  Core Assumptions typically evolved from the founder(s) worldview, tend to be non-debatable and reflect a fundamental outlook integral within the organization that is taken for granted.  Values and Beliefs represent a culturally common understanding of what ‘ought’ to be and provides a means to rationalize statements and actions.  Artifacts and Behaviors represent the physical reality and actions taken by members reflecting patterns, standards and norms of behavior.  Hunt’s model provides a useful way to frame culture.   

Charles Duhigg, in his book “The Power of Habit”, outlined how habits are formed as a result of a cycle of routine.  On cue, a routine is executed and reward is provided.  In the context of an organization, the cue could be a situation similar to past situations upon which an individual or team exercises a routine and is rewarded upon its success (see Habit Loop diagram).  The connection between a cue, the routine and a reward is important because it provides an understanding of how habits, after becoming established, become automatic responses to familiar situations. 

Habits are the activities we do every day.  As applied knowledge, habits are justified by attitudes.  In the context of an organization when attitudes provide us with identity, support our experiences and are socially reinforced by our team they become entrenched and hard to change.  This reality is important to remember in light of the challenges faced attempting to change those “…habits and attitudes of a lifetime.”   

We end up with a model in which Assumptions support Attitudes, which justify Habits (Assumptions -> Attitudes -> Habits).  As managers, working with the context of culture, there is tendency to address problems in a practical manner and move on.  Rarely is there an opportunity to tackle what can be seen as extraneous factors.  This can lead to crisis, as problems are addressed but perhaps not solved.  Let us look at an example dealing with product delivery and apply what we have learned.     


The company policy is “On-time Delivery is Job #1”.  If asked, team members willingly testify and agree that delivery dates are a priority.  Historically this policy is culturally reinforced with stories about the extreme measures taken in the past (working weekends, expediting parts, etc.) to ensure that customers are not disappointed.  The attitude of doing whatever it takes to avoid missing a ship date has its origin is the core assumption that timely shipments create satisfied customers who return to do more business.  Attitudes and habits evolve in light of the assumption allowing team members to process orders and deliver products on time.  The assumption reflects a valid perspective, the attitude leadership’s intent and the habit the fulfillment of that intent.  Assumption: Timely shipments equal satisfied customers -> Attitude: All orders ship on time -> Habit: Take whatever measures are required to ship on time.  Simple!  

Upon receiving customer complaints about late delivery, a typical reaction is to ask why measures were not taken to ship on time.  We do this because (a) the problem of timely delivery had been addressed in the past, and (b) everyone in the company knows we ship on time.  What could be wrong?  For our example, success has resulted in demands exceeding the means to meet them.  Habits created in the past are no longer appropriate to new realities.  While working weekends and expediting parts may have worked at one time, at some point they become overwhelmed and ineffective – creating a crisis.  The effort to change is challenged because fully ingrained and validated habits from the past are linked to an attitude (extraordinary measures ensure timely shipment).  Attempts to change those habits (i.e. improve scheduling communication) seems to question the value of what has been done in the past.  Unfortunately, people tend to link the habit (as a behavior) to the attitude (as a truth) and resistance to change can be profound.  When efforts to change habits fail to take into account, and link, the new approach to established attitudes the efforts are bound to fail.  The validity of a new approach in the eyes of the team is not only pragmatic (i.e. Does it work?) but it is also cultural (i.e. Does it fit with who we are?).  

The Lesson for Managers.  Business is dynamic and without the ability to improve through change, long-term success will be elusive.  The ability to affect lasting change in your organization requires an awareness of your culture: its assumptions, attitudes and resulting habits.   If a current problem results from a dated approach quickly becoming outmoded in the face of new circumstances, change is necessary.  Effective change efforts leverage cultural attitudes and link the new habits to accepted truths (“…improving our scheduling will allow us to ship on time and not have to work weekends and expedite parts…”).  In this example, the old routine (extraordinary effort) is updated to reflect a new routine (process scheduling) that is in alignment with a pre-existing and accepted unchallengeable attitude.  Explicitly linking a new approach to accepted values helps team members be open to the possibility of change because the new norm is not in violation of an accepted truth.  Solutions need to meet the pragmatic standard of providing improved results (i.e. better outcomes, less effort) as well as the cultural standard of being in alignment with who you are (i.e. “We are the people who ship on time”).  When you approach changing habits inside your company, take the time to address the attitude that justifies the habit, and if possible, pay attention to the underlying assumptions that are at the core of who you are.    

Further Reading

Duhigg, Charles. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.  New York: Random House. 2014.

Hunt, James G. Leadership: A New Synthesis. Newberry Park: Sage Publications, 1991.

Leonard, Dorothy and Walter Swap. Deep Smarts: How to Cultivate and Transfer Enduring Business Wisdom.  Boston: Harvard University Business School Press. 2005.

Schein, Edgar H. Organizational Culture and Leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1985.

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Jim Myers is the principal and founder of Praxis Analytics, Incorporated.  Jim serves as a trusted advisor to business leaders in their quest to translate intentions into results.  His background includes two decades working in manufacturing, supply chain, customer service and maintenance management roles within markets that range from capital equipment to aerospace and defense.  Jim balanced his practical operations experience with theory and served as the Associate Dean of the Atkinson Graduate School of Management (AGSM) at Willamette University where he led projects to improve school operations and taught graduate courses in Operations and Information Management, Strategy Alignment and Project Management.  

Jim can be reached at      

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