Hold paramount

I always start with a relevant image, but I was unable to find an openly licensed photo of one of the Boeing 737 Max crash sites and I refuse to show a photo of an intact Max 737.

What’s new?

The Guardian reports that the US Federal Aviation Administration has fined Boeing $2.5 billion for its behavior, including fraud and conspiracy, concerning safety issues of the 737 Max airliner.

What does it mean?

Crashes of Max 737 planes in October 2018 in Ethiopia and in March 2019 in Indonesia killed a total of 346 people. As explained in this 2019 article from Vox, Boeing made the business decision to try to avoid a lengthy recertification process by redesigning an existing plane rather than design a new plane. “But because the new engines wouldn’t fit under the old wings, the new plane wound up having different aerodynamic properties than the old plane. And because the aerodynamics were different, the flight control systems were also different. But treating the whole thing as a fundamentally different plane would have undermined the whole point. So the FAA and Boeing agreed to sort of fudge it.” An attempt to fix the problem through software was never incorporated sufficiently into pilot training. “That let Boeing get the planes into customers’ hands quickly and cheaply, but evidently at the cost of increasing the possibility of pilots not really knowing how to handle the planes, with dire consequences for everyone involved.” People died.

What does it mean for you?

In 2015, when news broke about VW’s use of software to defeat the ability of EPA tests to accurately measure emissions from VW diesels, I met my engineering class of about 20 juniors, seniors, and graduate students. I intended to briefly comment about the VW actions, lament the ethical lapses, reinforce the importance of ethics and safety, and then turn to our scheduled topic for the class. The engineering faculty had long agreed on the importance of highlighting news events related to engineering. However, much to my shock, some of the students pushed back: everyone lies, it’s part of the game, and that’s just business.

I argued back and a lively discussion ensued. In fact, I yelled at them. At the next meeting of our departmental advisory board (made up of representatives from local companies that hire our graduates), I recounted this story; the members of the board told me I was correct in yelling at the students. They said that ethical lapses were fireable offences.

A failure in learning by a wide group of students generally indicates a failure in teaching, so a few class sessions later, I spent some time reviewing the stance of the engineering profession regarding ethics and safety, material we cover in the first year introduction to engineering course. I started with the first Fundamental Canon in the NSPE (National Society of Professional Engineers) Code of Ethics for Engineers, which forms the basis for the codes of ethics of all engineering societies in the US: “Engineers, in the fulfillment of their professional duties, shall hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.”

Next I described that ABET, which accredits all engineering programs in the US, requires programs to include as a desired outcome that graduates have “an ability to recognize ethical and professional responsibilities in engineering situations and make informed judgments, which must consider the impact of engineering solutions in global, economic, environmental, and societal contexts.” The achievement of that outcome must be assessed and evaluated, and that evaluation must be used for continuous improvement of the program. In addition, any safety lapse during ABET’s review of a program that is not immediately fixed, will lead to a negative review, involving a “show cause” decision in which the institution must argue why the program should not lose its accreditation.

I reminded the students that, as seniors, they would be invited to be inducted into the Order of the Engineer, by reciting the obligation (including the statement that “my skill and knowledge shall be given without reservation for the public good”), and wearing a ring that reminds them of their obligation.

When I present this material to first year students in engineering, I tell them, that, if they are not ready to take on these ethical obligations, they should not become engineers. I invite them to leave.

I recently had a very bad experience with a national company (which left us for 5 days without propane) and a very good experience with a local company (Flow Right Plumbing, Heating and Cooling) that got our furnace and water heater running again after we got propane. When I complimented the local company, the repair person went on at length about the training they get – the first training he mentioned was ethics. I repeat: the first training he mentioned was ethics.

The fact that Boeing (and VW) did not receive the death penalty for their actions is an example of privileging the “lives” of corporations over the actual lives of living beings. If you are not prioritizing ethics, if you cannot make ethics and safety part of your business plan, if you do not make sure that every employee behaves ethically, then your business should not exist.

Where can you learn more?

Excellent material abounds for teaching engineering ethics, especially using case studies: for example, here, here, and here.

I am less familiar with such material for teaching business ethics, but an Internet search turned up similar business case studies here, here, and here. I cannot find that the standards of the leading business school accreditation body, AACSB, include a requirement that student outcomes include any knowledge or skill about ethical behavior, but I might have missed such a statement.  

An Internet search for “teaching ethics to employees” turned up many web pages with helpful material and many companies that offer such training or advice on how to train employees. I like this article from Training Magazine and this one from Strategic Finance Magazine.

Engineering culture constantly reinforces attention to safety and ethics, and every organization can do the same. Some companies start every meeting with a safety review. The pinky ring from the Order of the Engineer is designed to be a constant reminder of the obligation of the engineer to the public. I serve on the Board of Directors of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Pueblo County; every meeting has a report from our safety committee about how we are keeping kids safe. You can think of ways to make ethics constantly at the forefront of the minds of those in your organization.

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