The war between efficiency and safety

I’m going to use some examples from air safety but I have something to add: The problem is much more general than Aviation.  Actually, Aviation has an advantage that many people, involved in Management, does not use: Safety is critical in Aviation. Therefore, if problems arise in Aviation, it could be expected that these problems are going to appear in the short term in Banks, manufacturing plants and many other places. That was precisely the sense of my thesis and I was very surprised to see that many people from Aviation field was interested in it -it was adapted as a book under the name “Improving Air Safety through Organizational Learning”- but the main findings, bringing conclusions from Air Safety to Management were simply ignored. They are still as valid as they were 11 years ago.

Nobody could discuss that a CATIII landing -landing virtually without visibility- is an improvement for safety. However, before CATIII capabilities, pilots simply rejected landing if visibility was under minimum. Then…is the improvement aimed to better safety or to bigger efficiency? Furthermore, the human pilot is a kind of voyeur that cannot perform by himself this kind of landing. He has to trust an automatic system and his possibilities to check it are limited. Is that an Aviation issue? I’m afraid not.

Look at meteorologists: The number of stations providing data is big enough to make impossible to get conclussions in the old way. If a meteorologist tries to process all the information coming from these stations, his conclusions could arrive weeks or months after the situation to be foreseen. It could be a little bit useless forecasting a hurricane weeks after it blew a whole city. Same situation. People cannot challenge the computer that provides the weather forecast since the processing should be very slow and the software manufacturers probably won’t fully disclose the model that the computer uses. That explains why weather forecast is not anymore served by meteorologists in TV. A good anchorman speaking convincingly can be enough.

What about Banks? Could you imagine going to your Bank to complain about interest if you think that calculations are not properly made? What about derivatives? Software instructed to buy or sell when a specific limit is reached. Since many of the programmes could have similar limits, a little increase can trigger an enormous increase and, by the same token, a little decrease, can drive to a crisis. Who controls this? Nobody. Companies have bought speed but it comes at the price of preventing them from any kind of control.

Nassim Taleb in The Black Swan speaks about the impossibility to forecast the most important facts to come. I agree: When someone says that the world always had crises and the Nihil novum sub solem can be used to describe the present situation, I think that something is lost: In the past, we could expect that wars, movements and revolutions could be absorbed by the stabilizing mechanism that the world always had. Not anymore: Movements are sudden and violent enough to make stabilization processes useless. We gain efficiency, especially under the shape of speed, but we lose control over what’s coming next.

Aviation, as many other critical systems, is interesting because it can be used as a light to know what is coming in many other fields. The dynamics is simple: Gaining speed at the cost of control. Keeping this way, we’ll arrive someplace…but it is impossible to know where. Einstein said that he did not know which weapons should be used in the Third World War but he was sure that the Fourth one should be fought with sticks and stones. Probably, he was right.

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