The Quest for Self-Replicating Process
Updated: Aug 11
In the 1930’s the Boeing company was one of several American companies designing aircraft for the United States Army Air Corps. One such experimental aircraft was the Boeing Model 299. A demonstration flight of the Model 299 was scheduled by Boeing for the Army Air Corps on October 20, 1935. The potential future of the company was at stake. It was a very important flight.
It was a disaster.
Tragically, during the test flight the plane stalled, crashed, and 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. And each switch had to be in the exact right position.
A future investigation would reveal the crash was caused by a single incorrectly-set switch. The failure threatened the very existence of the fledgling Boeing company, who had to solve the problem of how 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 special checklists that made it possible to successfully fly the plane. At multiple critical times before, during, and after a flight, the pilot and the copilot carefully reviewed each switch listed in a checklist. With each switch in the right position for each task, the aircraft would not crash. The checklists worked. Using them the pilots could correctly set the switches and safely fly the planes.
You know the Model 299 by another name today, a name acquired during World War II... the B17... the flying fortress.
The B17 is one of the most famous aircraft of all time, a four-engine heavy bomber commissioned by the United States Army Air Corps. The allies won, the world's great democracies triumphed, and the B17 played an important role
It is a great story.
And, to this day people will say that checklists made it possible. But there is a problem in the way the story is told, it's misses the single most important thing which Boeing created. Checklists alone did not save the B-17, Boeing, and the free world...
In their preflight activities, the pilot and copilot of the B-17 do not "fill out a checklist." The pilot and copilot participate in a ceremony. The checklist is simply a tool used in the ceremony. To say the checklist was the ceremony is like saying a wedding is about acquiring a ring.
These people have the most delightful custom for getting a ring. You really must see it.
If anyone ever said that about a wedding, you would think they’ve missed the point entirely. In the case of the B-17 if you see the checklist, and miss the ceremony, you’ve missed the essence, the soul, of what actually happened.
The B-17 cockpit ceremony is the ritual interaction between the pilot and the co-pilot. It is purposeful, it is social, they spend the time and energy to do it because it may save their lives, and the pilots feel better having done it. Checklists are indeed an important part of it. But it is so much much more powerful than just a checklist alone.
Effective ceremony, like that seen in the B-17, always has four key characteristics: purposeful work, social ritual, worth the sacrifice, and positive emotional energy.
Ceremony is Purposeful Work
For the B-17 the purpose of the cockpit ceremony is to set the switches correctly, and not crash and die. People do not always follow checklists when left to themselves. They do follow them in good ceremony. Ceremony accomplishes real work. If the switches were not set correctly at the beginning of the ceremony they will be set correctly by the end.
Ceremony is Social Ritual
The copilot takes the checklist in his hand and, in a clear, loud voice, calls out each item.
“Gear switch neutral”.
The pilot places his hand on the landing gear switch and ascertains that it is in the neutral position. And the pilot says back to the copilot “Gear switch neutral” in response. It’s a call and response ritual structure.
Each switch is said out loud. Each switch is physically touched and verified. The ceremony isn’t complete until every critical switch is set in this manner. Two people, together, checking each key switch is the heart of the ceremony. Yes, they have a checklist. Yes, they have a written procedure. Most importantly, they have a ceremony where the pilot and the copilot work together to follow the procedures. Everyone knows exactly how the work is really being done.
The ceremony is the glue holding the documented procedure, the checklist, and the human participants together.
Ceremony Requires Sacrifice
It takes time and energy to ensure they are in the right position. Ceremony is a demand on the pilot and co-pilot’s time and attention. They must take time together to perform this detailed interaction, to read each item on the checklist, call it out loud, touch the switch, and move it to the correct position.
Giving their full attention is a sacrifice. No distractions. No multi-tasking. Full and complete attention directed to the ceremony. An attention so focused it may even cause a state of flow, where participants lose track of the passage of time, where they are carried along and synchronized with the physical and emotional micro-rhythms of the other, working truly as a team. It turns out, people really like working this way.
Ceremony Provides Positive Emotional Energy
Humans are naturally inclined to like doing purposeful work together, socially, using ritual forms. They even like sacrificing to do it. Working productively with other people is something hard-wired in us to enjoy, it produces positive emotional energy.
A majority of who we are, what we know, how we think, is subconscious. And paying attention to what the subconscious is saying can be a great win. When ceremony produces positive emotional energy, true magic happens. Good ceremony becomes activity-reinforcing, emotionally-addicting, self-replicating process.
Ceremony Turns Process Into Culture
The holy grail of organizational change is culture change. Peter Drucker is quoted as saying “Culture eats process for breakfast.” He may not have actually said it, but it sounds exactly like something he would have said. Just because you document processes or make checklists does not mean anyone actually follows them.
When people hear “Culture eats process for breakfast” they instantly relate if they have ever tried to change an important process. They recognize that culture is what their people actually do. Not what workers say they do. Not what management says they do. And not the processes that have been written down for them to follow. Culture is what people actually do.
And it is almost never what people think it is.
For decades, insightful business leaders such as Peter Drucker have encouraged us to write detailed procedures for how workers should accomplish repetitive tasks. Unfortunately, this is only a part of the solution. It is one thing to document a procedure, and quite another to get someone to follow the procedure. People naturally work whatever way they personally prefer. Documented procedures are frequently ignored by the people doing the work. Procedures and checklists have no power in and of themselves to direct human behavior--without ceremony
Ceremony Eats Culture for Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner
Ceremony brings documented procedures to life, and ensures the right things are done at the right time, in the right way, by the right people. Ceremony makes it possible to change the processes people really do, quickly and effectively.
Inside the Boeing B-18 story is true magic. Not checklists. Ceremony.
Documented procedures for flying a B-17 are essential. Having a checklist for exactly how those switches are set is essential. But it is the cockpit ceremony which establishes the cockpit culture. It is the cockpit ceremony which ensures the checklist is properly used. Without ceremony, the system fails.
Boeing’s true innovation was using ceremony as a strategy to safely fly planes. It is not clear if even Boeing understood this fact, even as it saved the free world.
Business today faces a new form of world war, where companies fight globally to produce innovative and disruptive new products and services. Business needs to change fast to respond to these challenges, if they are to survive. They have change problem.
Professor Richard Foster from Yale University pointed out a few years ago that the average lifespan of a company listed in the S&P 500 index is now just 15 years, down from 67 years last century. Companies haven’t known how to define and control their processes, much less change them to survive--until now. Ceremony solves the change problem.
A copy of the original B-17 cockpit ceremony, complete with checklists, is available in the Ceremony section of this website. Note that the instructions really do describe how to perform a cockpit ceremony.
The Yankee Air Museum in Belleville, MI maintains and flies an actual B-17. If you want to experience a piece of living history visit YankeeAirMuseum.org.