Psychological Safety in Manufacturing: How Silence in Aerospace Factories Can Turn Deadly

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Psychological Safety is not some nice-to-have touchy-feely concept.

Psychological Safety means that you feel safe speaking up in the workplace. That could mean:

  • Asking questions
  • Pointing out problems
  • Admitting mistakes
  • Disagreeing with your manager
  • Sharing ideas for improvement

It's been pretty well proven that organizations with a higher level of Psychological Safety perform better.

A lack of Psychological Safety in a factory can turn deadly. A lack of it has proven deadly in healthcare settings too, of course.

If workers and engineers are punished for speaking up about quality problems in aerospace factories, that puts customers (and passengers) at great risk.


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When people are pressured into being silent, that's a management problem and a culture problem. I'm not blaming the individuals who keep quiet to save their jobs. I do admire those who take great professional and personal risk to speak up anyway.

This WSJ article (which should be a free-reading link) talks at length about workers being punished at Spirit Aerosystems (a key Boeing supplier, formerly part of Boeing) for speaking up about quality concerns and problems.

‘This Has Been Going on for Years.' Inside Boeing's Manufacturing Mess.

There's so much to potentially dig into regarding decisions made by past Boeing executives about spinning off factories or outsourcing work. But I'll keep this post focused on the psychological safety elements.

I saw the punchline of this one story coming a mile away. It's not a funny situation, but I did literally laugh out loud:

“At one point, Dean said, [Spirit] threw a pizza party for employees to celebrate a drop in the number of defects reported. Chatter at the party turned to how everyone knew that the defect numbers were down only because people were reporting fewer problems.”

It's so predictable. It's happened before, and it will happen again.

Dr. Deming wrote about this dynamic 40 years ago, with a story of a factory that offered an incentive for “zero injuries.” Guess what, people stopped reporting injuries, even though people could be seen walking around with arms in slings and such.

Remember, including in healthcare, that “reported incidents” are not the same as “incidents,” especially when Psychological Safety is sorely lacking. In a true Lean Manufacturing environment, people are REWARDED for raising concerns and pointing out problems. We need more of that good Lean culture. Lives are at stake.

More from the WSJ article about people being punished for putting quality first:

The result, some current and former employees say: a factory where workers rush to meet unrealistic quotas and where pointing out problems is discouraged if not punished. Increasingly, they say, planes have been leaving Wichita with so-called escapements, or undetected defects. 

“It is known at Spirit that if you make too much noise and cause too much trouble, you will be moved,” said Joshua Dean, a former Spirit quality auditor who says he was fired after flagging misdrilled holes in fuselages. “It doesn't mean you completely disregard stuff, but they don't want you to find everything and write it up.”

And also:

On the Spirit factory floor, some machinists building planes say their concerns about quality rarely get conveyed to more senior managers, and that quality inspectors fear retaliation if they point out too many problems. 

Union representatives complained to leaders last fall that the company removed inspectors from line jobs and replaced them with contract workers after they flagged multiple defects. “This is leaving them with great quality and safety concerns,” one of the representatives wrote in an email to union officials. “Also feeling retaliated against for doing their jobs.” 

That doesn't give me more confidence about flying on Boeing airplanes. I hope the culture at Airbus isn't as dysfunctional.


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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.

1 COMMENT

  1. Dean is a constant liar. I work with him in his new quality job at jci. He is constantly getting caught in lies and boasting about the spirit lawsuit he tells everyone every time he sees them that “he’s suing spirit and will make millions”. We hear this story numerous times a week. He’s awful proud of it. Now when you look at his quality work it’s shitty and could care less about quality as long as he looks good at the end and makes sure to tell people he did this and that when he technically did nothing. It’s all about being seen in the lime light and feeding his ego. This is not a stab at him because of ill will or anything like that just facts of working with him.

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