The Rise of Anonymous Tough Love (And Not a Moment Too Soon)
Like everyone who flies on a regular basis or has a flight coming up soon, I’ve taken keen interest in the controversy surrounding the air worthiness of the Boeing 737 Max series. After two horrible crashes in 6 months, they’ve essentially been banned from the skies until an investigation is completed in to what caused the second crash and what can be done to prevent another one in the future.
What seemed to be the tipping point here in the U.S., or at least the point at which the pressure was ratcheted up significantly on the FAA to take action, was the revelation of issues U.S.-based pilots had been having with the plane, submitted months ago in an anonymous, FAA sponsored whistleblowing system.
In one comment, a pilot remarked they had a surprising “nose down” situation they had to recover from, seemingly similar to the situation the Lion Air pilots found themselves in. In another, a pilot felt the new flight manual for the Max versions were “criminally insufficient.”
It’s rare to have this kind of dissent made public, but the dissent itself is exactly why these types of whistleblower systems have been implemented in the first place. There is often such political pressure or a direct threat to your livelihood to not say something, that problems, whether they be life threatening like airplane design flaws, or lesser, often go unaddressed.
In the work that we do with large organizations around crowd forecasting, we unintentionally are often the only anonymous outlet employees have to voice what they really think is going to happen with strategic initiatives, new product launches, internal cost-saving initiatives, etc.
Here for example, is a trend graph showing how people are forecasting a project meeting an upcoming milestone by the end of 2019 Q1 at one of our current clients. I’ve confirmed with the project manager that this declining level of confidence about the program was never aired in status meetings or any other “official” communication channels until only a couple weeks ago. And yet:
With the cover of anonymity, as the project continued, its team members were telling a very different story. The likelihood of success, on a downward trend since October, sunk below 50% in mid-January and never recovered.
When we start projects with our clients, one of the first items we talk about is whether they want people to be anonymous in our prediction market or if they’ll use their real identities. The answer often reveals a lot, both about company culture and their personal fears of what will be made transparent. The spoiler alert is most don’t want anonymity. But we always strongly recommend it, and fortunately win that battle a vast majority of the time.
Because it turns out this is one of the most beneficial aspects of running a prediction market internally: not just the accuracy of the forecasts, but uncovering ground truth. In a perfect world, no one should be making decisions without maximum, trustworthy information at their disposal. And it has been proven one of the loudest voices you should be listening to are the people who are designing, building, marketing, and selling your products and services.
When millions (or billions) of investments are at stake, not to mention stock price and brand value, the pressure to pull the lever and stop the train for any reason is immense. In the case of Boeing, we don’t know officially or unofficially if they knew there were potentially going to be technical or training issues with the Max, but we do know there was tremendous pressure on the company to produce a plane that could still be classified as a “737” so more training wouldn’t be required of pilots. Thousands of orders at $120M per plane were at stake.
There is a concept in manufacturing introduced by the Jidoka quality-control method pioneered by Toyota as part of the Toyota Production System called Andon. Andon encourages workers to stop the production line if they feel there is a quality control or process issue. Instead of being shamed for pausing production, workers are rewarded for calling attention to the issue. Not only that, all issues are logged and studied as part of a continuous process of improvement.
While this concept has been incorporated in to Lean Methodology, it’s clear it hasn’t permeated in to most white collar corporate cultures. After a product failure, a poorly thought out ad campaign, or any other costly fail, it’s retroactively evident private whispers at lunch and at the water cooler should have had an outlet to be officially surfaced and considered. The fact they weren’t/can’t speaks volumes about the cultures at these places in desperate need of repair.