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Why safety and quality matter for sustainable innovation

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The world witnessed a great tragedy as the remains of the OceanGate submersible were found on the ocean floor not far from the wreck of the Titanic. While we have to be patient and wait for the full investigation, we are left with several widely reported and disturbing quotes from late OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush that spoke about the perceived trade-off between safety, quality and innovation.

OceanGate has apparently encountered numerous concerns over the years from industry experts, primarily when it chose to forego an independent safety audit of its submersible. Due to this heavily criticized decision, the Marine Technology Society committee warned OceanGate that their decision “risked a potentially catastrophic failure”. In response, the company reportedly said, “Innovation in design is not part of an already accepted system.”

Safety regulations and oversight seen as a barrier to the growth of innovation might have produced a different outcome. As President and CEO of a company that advises clients on safety and operational performance, I know that safety, quality and innovation often propel themselves in tandem; giving it up can have catastrophic ramifications. Quality and safety must be woven into the very fibers of groundbreaking innovation to achieve lasting, long-lasting results. Without the proper prioritization of safety, unsustainable innovation is at risk, similar to the risk the OceanGate implosion could have on the submersible industry. For business leaders looking to improve the culture of safety in their workplace or industry-wide, there are lessons learned from multiple industries.

The aviation industry has made great strides in innovation and safety. Passengers no longer board a plane wondering if they will get to their destination safely. By focusing on engineering, understanding human performance and culture, and continuing to learn from accidents and near-misses, aviation fatalities in the United States have decreased by 95 %, measured by fatalities per 100 million passengers. Travelers are almost certain that the plane will perform as planned. The aviation industry has emphasized safety and safety culture over the years, which has led to exponential growth in the number of air passengers. According to a 2021 article in The Wall Street Journal, US airlines have transported more than 8 billion passengers over the past 12 years without fatal accidents. Advances in aviation technology, safety transformations and a culture that encourages speaking up when safety issues arise have led to a booming industry that passengers continue to trust.

However, the airline industry has not been largely exempt from scrutiny. Small missteps in the innovation process cost Boeing huge sums. Beginning in 2012, Boeing was consistently the largest aircraft manufacturer with a very good reputation for safety until that streak came to an abrupt halt when a second B737-MAX crashed in Ethiopia in 2019. Boeing then had to postpone its study and development plans for new medium-sized aircraft. (NMA) to eventually replace the 757 and 767 due to the immediate need to correct their surveillance and successfully return the 737-MAX to flight.

The automotive industry has also made leaps and bounds in innovation while incorporating strong safety optics. Driver assistance technologies such as lane-keeping assist and forward collision warning have transformed automotive industry expectations from simply protecting passengers in the event of an accident to completely preventing accidents. ‘a collision.

Professor Steven Spears, author of “The High-Velocity Edge”, has written one of the most influential books on operational performance. It explores the US Navy’s nuclear propulsion program in one of its chapters. The first nuclear-powered submarine, the Nautilus, entered the United States Navy fleet in 1954. The speed at which this new technology was introduced was most impressive, given that nuclear technology had only been explored only a decade earlier and the program had not been officially established until 1949. Launching this new technology required profound innovation, new materials and the creation of new manufacturing systems. Since the launch of the Nautilus submarine, the Navy has not experienced a single reactor-related casualty or radiation leak.

Spears says the U.S. Navy embodied “the discipline of engineering – whatever knowledge the group had, it was assumed to be inadequate (…) there was no room for guesswork; learning had to be constant and fast, not only experiential but experimental.” In stark contrast, prior to the dissolution of the USSR, the Soviet fleet suffered numerous nuclear disasters resulting in considerable injury, death, and environmental pollution. Speaking of the US Navy’s operational performance success, Spears says, “Even if you didn’t succeed, you created an opportunity to learn how to succeed.”

Psychological safety is also essential to the innovation process to ensure that people feel comfortable expressing their ideas and bringing out potential problems without fear of negative consequences. In 2018, OceanGate reportedly fired its Director of Marine Operations, who came forward to express concerns that OceanGate was “not properly testing the vessel’s carbon fiber hull”. OceanGate reportedly gave its former employee a few minutes to gather his things and leave. Research has found a correlation between psychological safety and innovative work behavior. In other words, when employees feel safe in their work environment, they are more likely to take calculated risks, collaborate, and try new ideas, which leads to increased innovation.

Sustainable innovation can only be achieved when safety and quality are built into the design process. In the short term, quality and safety shortcuts may seem to accelerate innovation, but they only lead to unbearable and short-lived innovation.

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