In 1942 the world looked grim. The Axis armies of Germany and Italy had advanced across Europe and northwest Africa while the imperial Empire of Japan controlled Korea, parts of China, and much of Oceania. The world was in the grip of bloody genocidal dictators.
The Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress played a central role in defeating these forces. Few people know, however, that the B-17 almost never came into being. On October 20, 1935, during a demonstration test flight, the prototype plane stalled, crashed, and then burst into flames.
Two crew members died.
A local newspaper reported that the prototype aircraft was “too much plane for one man to fly.” It had too many switches that had to be in the exact right position. The crash was caused by a single incorrectly set switch.
The crash threatened the very existence of the fledgling Boeing company. Boeing had to solve the problem of how to ensure young, inexperienced pilots could successfully fly their plane. And they had to do it fast.
The rest is aviation history.
As the story is told, Boeing invented the checklists that made it possible to successfully fly the plane. The checklists saved the aircraft, saved Boeing, and eventually helped save the free world.
There is just one problem with this story—it’s wrong.
Checklists did not save the B-17, Boeing, and hence the free world. Ceremony did.
The preflight activities of the pilot and copilot in the B-17 are not “following a checklist.” Rather, the pilot and copilot are participating in a ceremony. The checklist is simply an artifact used in the ceremony. To say the ceremony was simply a checklist is like saying that weddings are ring exchanges.
These people have the most delightful custom for exchanging and wearing rings. You really have to see it.
If anyone ever said that about a wedding, you’d be sure they missed the entire point, and didn’t understand what was happening at all. This same is true for preflight checklists and aviation. Mistakenly giving the credit to checklists misses the entire point.
This mistake has dominated business thinking for almost eighty years, to everyone’s detriment.
Entire Program Management offices have been dedicated to designing, creating, updating, and verifying checklists. Millions of workers spend hundreds of millions of hours each year filling out checklists—and it is almost all waste.
The checklist has become simply paperwork to complete, a bureaucratic process to conform to, an enormous time-wasting, joy-killing nuisance.
A management movement arose after the war encouraging everyone to reduce all work into documented procedures to follow and checklists to complete. They focused on the artifacts, and missed entirely the interactions between the humans who were using the artifacts.
They saw the rings and missed the wedding.
Of course documenting procedures has merit. There is a lot of power to understanding, documenting, and sharing procedures that work. Having a checklist for how the switches must be set on a B-17 is essential. And wedding rings are often beautiful, even without the wedding.
But far more important are the ceremonies designed to ensure the proper use of the checklists. Far more important are the vows made in front of a community of witnesses during a wedding. Ceremonies are more important than artifacts because ceremonies account for innate human strengths, weaknesses, and motivations.
If we want to leverage the power discovered by Boeing, we need to understand their true innovation—using ceremony as a strategy to safely fly planes.
It is the ceremony, not the checklist, which ensures that the right things are done at the right time, in the right way, by the right people. The ceremony, not the checklist, channels human energy towards repeatable, successful outcomes.
An entire series of flight ceremonies makes it possible to this day to prepare a very complicated plane for takeoff. The ceremonies save lives. If you fly regularly they may have saved your life.
Boeing B-17 Engine Run-Up Ceremony
Mark, a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress pilot and his copilot, John, sit inside the bomber cockpit preparing to start the engines. One mistake, such as a single switch improperly set, could lead to the loss of the aircraft and the death of the crew.
The pilot and copilot are deadly serious as they begin. John takes a preflight checklist in his hands and calls out in a clear loud voice, “Brakes—Locked.”
Mark touches the gear switch, ascertains it is in the neutral position, and responds “Brakes—Locked.”
“Check,” John replies, confirming that the setting called out by Mark is in the correct position according to the checklist.
The co-pilot continues down the list one item at a time. He doesn’t move on to the next item until he has personally confirmed the item was checked. Once every item on the list is checked, and confirmed by both parties, the ceremony ends.