Tragedy on Nimitz Hill: A Lesson on Organizational Culture

Tragedy on Nimitz Hill: A Lesson on Organizational Culture

Tragedy Strikes

It was a misty dark night on August 6th, 1997, off the tropical paradise of Guam. Korean Air Flight 801 departing from Seoul and manned by 42-year-old Captain Park Yong-chul was planning a routine descent. At 1:42 AM, however, disaster struck, as the plane hit Nimitz Hill, a densely vegetated mountain, three miles south of the airport. The plane skidded for two thousand feet bursting an oil pipeline and tearing through hundreds of pine trees, before eventually falling into a deep ravine and erupting into flames. 228 passengers died that ill-fated night, many of who met a harrowing death of being burned alive!

What had caused this horrific crash? Although, the weather conditions were not optimal, Captain Park was a seasoned veteran who could easily overcome such obstacles. He had more than 8900 hours of flight time including 3200 hours of experience flying this particular aircraft- the jumbo jet. Moreover, he was an accomplished pilot with the Korean Air Force, was in immaculate health, and had flown eight times into Guam from Seoul’s Gimpo International Airport-the most recent being only one month prior. Even the airplane itself was in supreme working condition and was once used as the official Korean presidential aircraft.

Figure 1: Korean Air Flight 801 Crashes at Nimitz Hill, Guam

The Chanting Monks

A deeper investigation was summoned into the crash, and many theories emerged. Rumors swirled that it was due to pilot error, but Korean Air vehemently denied this and claimed weather and equipment failure were to blame. As the investigation ran, Buddhist monks in orange and black robes led a memorial service on the hill and about 50 mourners, mostly relatives, bowed their heads and wept quietly as the monks chanted prayers, rang chimes and burned incense.

Ultimately, the veritable truth would be found within the infamous black box which echoed these eerie last words from the cockpit…

First officer: Do you think it rains more in this area?

Captain: (silence)

Flight engineer: Captain, the weather radar has helped us a lot.

Captain: Yes. They are very useful

The foreign investigators were alarmed at what they were hearing; and were perplexed by the Captain’s nonchalant attitude to such a critical situation. Why were the warning signals fired off by his First Officer and Flight Engineer so subtle, and why did the Captain brush them off so easily?

After realizing the nuances of Korean culture, the investigators realized that what the First Officer and Engineer were trying to do was warn the pilot that it won’t be safe to do a visual approach landing without a backup plan, as the runway was seemingly not visible. Such communication of sparse hinting from first officer to pilot is not uncommon in Korean culture. However, driven by respect to authority and fear of upsetting their superior, the co-pilots ultimately contributed to the plane crash as they allowed the pilot to start a visual landing without an alternative emergency signal.

Cockpit Culture

Was the cockpit culture which centered around hierarchy, authority and power distance to blame for the crash? Although other conditions were not optimal, investigators believed that if the Captain took heed to the words of his officer and engineer, or if they were more pronounced with their warning signals, the crash could have easily been avoided. Did this authoritarian culture which impeded proper communication contribute to the deaths of 228 innocent lives off the tropical island of Guam?

The airplane itself is a marvel of design and is quite a complex entity, very similar to an organization in its entirety with all its moving parts and dimensions. Metaphorically speaking both the aircraft and organization are quite similar entities. Just as an organization has a leadership team, strategy, operations and culture, the aircraft too sets flight within a very similar context.

Figure 2: An Organization Metaphorically Represented

Some of the best strategies ever devised have been crushed by the powerful force of organizational culture; it is that immovable force that can make or break organizations. Culture-the common pattern in the stream of organizational behaviors will always have the ability to trounce over the strategy-the pattern in the stream of decisions. Even when an organization constructed with the best people, processes, technology, and structures, it can all be demised by a polluted organization culture that forces all these organizational elements to grind against one another and deteriorate.

Figure 3: The “Cultural Oil”

Culture is what makes the organizational engine turn frictionless, without it, the organizational engine will break down. Similarly, in an aircraft, the cockpit culture is what often dooms the flight and is one of the major reasons (if not the biggest factor) in airplane crashes.

The World’s Deadliest Airlines

When looking at the deadliest airlines in the world, an interesting pattern related to culture emerges.

Figure 4: The World’s Deadliest Airlines

Firstly, when exploring these aircraft disasters, it was realized that a major reason for many of the crashes had little to do with mechanical error but a lot to do with pilot error and cultural issues that led to miscommunication within the cockpit and/or with the control tower. Secondly, the airlines had a striking similarity when it came to culture.

Spawned from decades of research, Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede, who has been dubbed “the man who put corporate culture on the map” developed five cultural dimensions representing national cultures across the globe.

In a startling discovery all the deadliest airlines had an alarmingly high power-distance dimension i.e. the extent to which a society accepts that power in institutions and organizations is distributed unequally. On the flip-side, the world’s safest airline had one of the lowest scores on power-distance, translating to a culture that is more egalitarian and less centered on authority and hierarchy. Is this all a coincidence or is there some veritable truth to this?

Correlation or Coincidence?

Whether the driving force for aircraft crashes is the power-distance that embodies the national culture, remains to be seen and can be debated. However, one thing is for certain; culture remains that powerful force that will slay strategies, break organizations, and plunge aircrafts 30,000 feet from the sky.

*Source(s): Pacific Daily News- 20 years later: remembering Korean Air Flight 801, M

About the Author: Rani Salman is a managing partner at Caliber Consulting, a boutique strategy consulting firm based in the UAE that specializes in strategy realization. The firm’s Organization & Culture practice focuses on sustainable solutions on real Transformation and Culture Change through consulting work and capability building programs.


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