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I think it is highly appropriate that this story is relayed by Bob Sutton. The negative culture at United described in the story is real. Too many people have witnessed it and felt it, and it is like a cancer in a once great airline. I cannot help but think that it has some effect on safety. No matter how good or how dedicated individual employees may be, the culture is so corrosive that I do not have faith that near misses will be corrected by internal mechanisms. Other airlines have also "lost" children, but the fact is that the same sloppiness and bureaucratic anonymity that is exemplified in this story spreads until the entire system is broken. As any pilot can tell you, many mistakes are made before an accident happens, and as an outsider, and as a passenger, I see mistakes being made in too many places to be able feel comfortable flying United. It's not about vindictiveness or pride when I say I won't fly United. It's about an organization losing its’ way in an extremely complex and high risk/high consequence industry. Moving millions of people millions of miles is not an easy thing to do, and everyone in the organization is responsible for not just their job, but the entire operation. Problems and dangers arise outside the boundaries of people's job descriptions and when no one intervenes (as with Phoebe) because that is not in the culture of the organization these problems and dangers will cascade through the system in unpredictable ways. Leadership is so important here, and I am sure heads will roll on the part of the worker bees, but I doubt there will be much of a change in leadership. They see themselves as eminently competent and will fail to recognize this scenario as a failure on their part. In an organization with 80k plus employees I suspect the leadership is very well insulated, and that is where the change needs to happen. The culture won't change until that happens, and as good as the pilots and other committed employees are, they cannot pick up after everyone else.
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Aug 15, 2012