Information Flow Cultures

Ron Westrum is Emeritus Professor of sociology at Eastern Michigan University. He holds a B.A. (honors) from Harvard University and a Ph.D in Sociology from the University of Chicago. Dr. Westrum is a specialist in the sociology of science and technology, and on complex organizations. He has written three books, Complex Organizations: Growth, Development and Change; Technologies and Society: The Shaping of people and Things, and Sidewinder: Creative Missile Design at China Lake. He has also written about 50 articles and book chapters. His work on organizational culture has been valuable for the aviation industry and to medical safety, as well as to other areas of endeavor. He has been been a consultant to NASA, the National Research Council, and the Resilience Core Group. He is currently at work on a book on information flow cultures.


Ron Westrum

Emeritus Professor of Sociology, Eastern Michigan University



Okay. I am so honored and delighted by who is speaking next. Dr. Ron Westrum is professor emeritus of sociology at Eastern Michigan university. His name will be familiar to anyone who has read the state of DevOps reports, which I had the privilege of working on for six years with Dr. Nicole Forsgren and Jess humble from 2013 to 2019. It is across population study that span over 36,000 respondents that allowed organizations to understand what high performing technology organizations look like as well as what are the architectural practices, technical practices and cultural norms that predict high performance. And without a doubt, what those cultural norms might look like were made possible by the work of Dr. Ron Westrum. He received his PhD in sociology from the university of Chicago, and he spent decades studying complex organizations, including healthcare aviation and the nuclear industry. And one of the models that he created was the famous Western organizational typology model that brilliantly categorized organizations into pathological, bureaucratic, and generative.


It's difficult to overstate, just how much the work of Dr. Westrum influenced our thinking and is featured prominently in the state of DevOps research in the devil's handbook and the accelerate books. And when Dr. Ford's, when CC'd me on some correspondence that she had with Dr. Westrum, I almost fell out of my chair. And after a quick conversation with Dr. Flores grin, I emailed him to see if he'd be willing to be a guest on the ideal cast. And I was able to interview him for over four hours. So up next is a talk from Dr. Western in two parts. First, he will be teaching us about information flow in organizations, as well as providing a case study on Boeing, which we aired early this year. And in the second part, he will talk about the continuation of that research, which only underscores the importance of his work. Here's Dr. Western.


So today we're going to talk about information flow cultures, and we're going to talk about the cultures of organizations. So what the devil is, organizational culture. Well, organizational culture is a complicated thing. For instance, it has the following characteristics. So organizational culture is practices. Organizational culture is thoughts. Organizational culture is feelings, and it has symbols. So while all these are important, we're going to use another index, the flow of information. Why is information flow? The right thing to do? The reason is basically information is the lifeblood of organizations. If the organization has a good flow of information, the organizations will do well. If it has a bad flow, it's going to do very well. Information is also a powerful index of how an organization functions and information flow culture. In fact, reflects how managers shape values and behavior. And we're going to describe three different information flow types.


One of them is generative where you have a high flow of information, the best then there's bureaucratic, which has a medium flow of information and pathological, which has a low flow. So let's look at pathological flow in pathological organizations, you get a local operation, very high conflict and emphasis on taking care of the leaders, strict boundaries, messengers get shot. You have low creativity. So you have a toxic environment and a bureaucratic situation. You get modest cooperation. The emphasis is on rules and regulation. You have a problems with silos. Messengers are tolerated, not necessarily encouraged. Conflicts are tamped down and creativity is allowed. And here is my slide, which I think reflects the flow of bureaucratic information, which is that it's slow. Now, what we'd really like to have as a generative flow of information, where we have high cooperation, we have emphasis on the mission.


We have boundaryless organization where things move quickly over the boundaries. Speaking up is encouraged. And in fact, people have psychological safety and high creativity. So here is my example of how highly creative organization is supposed to function. I think star Trek is a perfect model. Now let me emphasize one of the features that goes with generative information flow at Google, they had a project called project Aristotle and he studied what made for an effective team. The number one feature of an effective team was psychological safety. The ability to speak your mind without fear of punishment, when communication is easy, there is more of it, but it's also the right kind of communication. I like to say that a high flow of communication has these three characteristics. Number one, it's timely. Number two, it's easy to understand. And it comes in a form that's easy to, to make sense of number three, it meets the receiver's needs.


Now there's a classic example of this during the famous Redstone rocket program, which was one of NASA's first, a prototype went off course and crashed fair enough on Brahm head of the project, tried to figure out by many analyses what had happened. The analysis did not suggest to cause now that we're going to have to start from scratch to redesign the missile, but then an engineer came to Von brown. He said, I think I did it, but how fun Brian wanted to know? Well, the engineer said, I touched a part of the circuit with a screwdriver and got a spark I checked and the circuit seem to be fine, but maybe that was the problem. Well, it turned out that was the problem. Okay. So the problem got solved and then Von Braun sent the bottle, the engineer, a bottle of champagne. So take a moment to think about your organization.


What would happen when an engineer admits to making such a big mistake? Does he get a bottle of champagne? Generative cultures are often found in high-performance organizations. They are common in high reliability systems that required greater cooperation for success. There are typical of elite military units whose cooperation is legendary. For instance, the Navy seals, and they are often seen in consumer and service industries when exceptional consumer satisfaction is the goal. And they are often led by technological maestros. So what is a technological Maestro? Well, this word was coined by Arthur Squire's in his book. The tendership about leadership and technology and world war II. And it meant the top leaders had these characteristics. Number one, tactical virtuosity, number two, a high energy level, number three, an ability to grasp the key questions. Number four, the ability to grasp the key details, high standards and a hands-on attitude.


Now here's another example of a Maestro. Um, in June, 1978, an engineering student called an architect named William William , who had designed key parts of the city court building in downtown New York. The 57 floor building had an unusual footprint. The student wanted to know whether the building was stable or not. Was it going to be stable in a high wind? The Missouri assured the student that it would be stable. And he personally had designed a special mass staffer on the top floor to study it, but then he had a second thought. And that thought was that if the building was built, according to specifications, there would be no problems, but had it actually been built that way. So lemme Missouri called them the builder. Well, the builder said they had pretty much followed the plans that they've been given, but there was one detail that was different.


They had used rivets instead of Wells to hold the building together on a short building, this would not matter, but on a 57 story building a quartering wind strong enough would bring down the building. How often would such a wind show up? The answer was about every 16 years. So they had to fix it and they did fix it. And he told the newspapers about it, but ask them to hold a story. So for several months after the secretaries had gone home at night, contractors pulled off the wall panels and welded the girders together after they fixed the stock structural problem, then the newspapers published what had happened. Oh, by the way, what is requisite imagination? It's the fine art of anticipating what might go wrong. So here is a prime example of requisite imagination. And remember mastering the key details is one trait of a technological Maestro.


So maestros build a generative information flow. And this creates the complex web that allows the organization to build things. For instance, this is how you build airliners. So we're going to look at how Boeing created airliners. So building airliners is big business, and I have a law, the higher, the stakes, the rough of the plate. So when Boeing builds airliners, this is rough play. It involves very high stakes and high risk. You had Boeing did it for well for many decades. For instance, we have examples like the straddle liner, the straddle cruiser, 7 0 7 7 27, the 7 47 and finally the triple seven airliner. So how did Boeing do this? Well, Boeing had a lot of money, a lot of people and a lot of machines, but Boeing also had a secret weapon. And that secret weapon was a culture that held it, all those assets together, a culture like a family in spite of crises, like business downturns and strikes and so forth.


Culture is actually a form of capital. Any company that manufactures something as large and complicated as a jet airliner forms a complex web of knowledge. So if we take the cultural capital and put it together with the technological Maestro, we get planes like the Boeing, triple seven, Marvel of precise engineering, understand that this human web of knowledge and competence is fragile and may degrade under rough handling. So if you interfere with this culture of human competence, bad things can happen. And at Boeing, this seems to be what happened after Boeing merged with McDonald Douglas, the merger caused damage that undercut the web of manufacturing know-how. And here is one of those pictures that is better than a thousand words. We have Carl conduit of Boeing listening to Harry Stonesifer of McDonald Douglas. And you can tell this was not a happy marriage. So as Boeing's culture went out the door it's aircraft Maestro, Alan Malali went to Detroit where by the way, he took over Ford and did great.


Harry Stonesifer McDonald Douglas soon became the new CEO of Boeing. And under him, the culture rapidly declined Stonecipher. One of the new culture, what he described as going from family to teams. And this is a very important set of words, because even though those things don't seem to meet a great deal of difference to the ordinary person and Boeing and made a huge difference, what employee told Harry Stonecipher, my God, Harry don't, you know, you're changing the culture of Boeing Stonecipher leaped into the air. And he said, my God, that's what we want to do. That's what Stonecipher did, but was it a good idea to do it? What culture was being replaced and what would take its place suppose that Boeing's great accomplishments had only been possible thanks to its culture. What was this culture? Boeing's employees described it as being like a family, but this culture was actually a high cooperation, generative culture.


Yet Stonesifer was not happy to be with, but the Boeing culture for making planes, he wanted the culture focused on making money. So the generative culture got replaced by a bureaucratic culture, but the former culture, the generative culture had been the key to Boeing success. So as the price of Boeing stock went up, the price of its technical product fell. So the next airline, they came down the pipe, the Dreamliner was beautifully designed, but messed up on batteries and other manufacturing issues. And I understand it's still messed up. Stonecipher. Meanwhile had left Boeing in 2005. Other CEO follows, but success did not return. Then Boeing made a more serious mistake. It put fatal flaws and a new airliner. The new 7 37 max had major defects. This airliner had to work to beat Airbus, but it didn't the 7 37 max had a new M cast software installed. It caused unexpected motions. This is a perfect example of a latent pathogen. Using the term of Jim reason. Pilots should have been trained for the new software, but they were not the full toolkit of the knowledge to operate. This plane was not supplied. One U S pilot after suffering from M cast problems said, I am left to wonder what else don't. I know the flight manual is inadequate and almost criminally insufficient.


So if culture breaks down, things get missed, no Maestro and a messed up culture. You could be flying without a parachute. The flaws in the 7 37 max soon led to two crashes killing a total of 345 passengers. A broken culture had led to a broken airline, her project and a huge reputational loss. So what are the lessons we learned from this story? The most obvious one is that if you have a working culture, don't mess with it. And if your culture is not working, you better find out how you can fix it. And finally, if you don't know whether your culture is working or not, shouldn't you find out very good. So I wanted to make some additional comments on corporate culture. Next,


The famous Harvard philosopher, William James, once wrote about something that he called the will to believe the world to believe had to do with groups of people and what they felt they could accomplish together. He said the width the will to believe much could be done. That was otherwise impossible. Next here's William James, about a hundred years ago next, uh, then there was a physicist and Ricoh phenome in the process of creating the world's first controls, atomic power reactor at Chicago and Ricoh fairy talked about the will to think he said the, when the inventor came to believe that his or her invention would be funded, this created a will to think fair means immediate situation was a creation of an atomic power source under the university of Chicago's quadrangle tennis court. He said the government support was what supplied him with the will to think so the project could be created.


And thus, the first atomic pile was created next, here he is. And next. And finally collective efficacy. Some 50 years later, uh, university of Chicago neighborhoods study brought up the concept of collective efficacy and defended by yet another Harvard professor Felton Earls. He used it to describe a neighborhood's feeling about its own powers. Collective efficacy was the feeling that people, the neighborhood had worked together and solving its problems. This included people stepping up to do acts such as benefiting the public good, such as protecting against crime, helping old people across the street, et cetera, is this concept is what we need here next. So here's Felton Earls next.


Why, why is collective efficacy important? If we want to understand why legacy Boeing culture was so strong, we need to see it expressing a collective ability to work together for success. As I indicated before, building a new airliner is a masterful work of creation. The more one delves into the history of Boeing, the more this factor becomes evident. Building a new airline. Airliner was a massive act of collective faith without this face. The parts that make up the new airliner will not come together. There has to be a collective will to believe, to get the effort next.


So what is it that builds collective efficacy? The most obvious answer is promises kept don't understand this. We have to look at the context and Boeing's history. In fact, so first Boeing had been building airlines, air air airplanes for nearly two decades before world war two. But in that war, Boeing built a bomber that for all its faults was absolutely key to winning the war. That bomber was a B 17 flying fortress, and then Boeing had built a B 29 super fortress and even more impressive aircraft next. So to put the value of the B 17 in context, I'm going to read you a passage from Robert's hurling's fine. Book, Boeing legend on legacy. The specific event was the U S armed services committee in 1956. The issue at hand was the profits of airplane companies during world war II. On the fourth day of the hearings, Boeing representatives, including controller Clyde, Skeen held about prices and costs. After skiing spoke Boeing CEO, William Allen was asked if he had any remarks. They had to schemes testimony next. So here he is looking very handsome next.


So William Allen Boeing CEO got up and testified off the cuff without a single reference note for 20 minutes. He pointed out that $600 million in gross income, Boeing and made only 6 million in profits. He pointed out that pending legislation would only allow them to make 12% in profit and they would never, and they never even got close to that. He said that Boeing was flying 75% of these profits back into research and development higher than the industry average here's them to consider not whether Boeing had made too much, but whether it had made enough next slide. So had Boeing helped to save the free world. The armed services subcommittee gave Alan a standing ovation after his speech one committee member then told him, he said, I think Boeing was performing a tremendous service, not only to the United States, but for the entire free world, because if it were not for Boeing today, perhaps there would be no free world.


So here was a promise that was kept next Boeing's military and space experience was important for the country and for Boeing itself, this included not only vital war planes, such as the C 1 35, B 47 and B 52, but strategic missiles, such as the minute man space efforts, such as a lunar orbiter in the first stage of the Saturn five rocket skilled engineers move from one project to another moving expertise and ideas next. But I wanted to focus on faith. Boeing as a company, worked on many projects at once. Engineers would be shoveled back and forth with new projects and rose and others reached their maturity. You had one of the truly great projects at Boeing. The huge seven forty seven project did not seem born under a lucky star. Indeed. The supposed high talent of Boeing and the late 1960s was focused not on the 7 47, but on designing a supersonic transport.


Joe Sutter, the chief engineer for the 7 47 project from members coming into Washington one night, tired and looking for a rest next. And here he is tired and looking for a rest. Next slide. So Sutter found himself among 20 of Boeing star power engineers were working on the supersonic transport. They took him to the bar for a drink and tried to encourage him by saying, do okay on the giant jet. And we will find you a place on the SST team. Well, soda was taken aback was a 7 47 project, a backwater. Clearly the big money was on a supersonic transport. So we're the top engineers. What was he to do? Next slide?


So here he is with a supersonic transport at the, and a 7 47 at the bottom. Next slide. So Sutter was not about to leave as assignment until he, it was a big success. One evening, he had a long talk with his number two engineer who was feeling depressed. He was able, he writes to make the man feel a lot better about the project. And from that moment, he realized that everybody on the team needed to feel a lot better as well. So he took us to this task, providing the leadership information and faith that would see the project through, but this was only one of his challenges next.


So the challenges for the 7 47 project first set had to make sure that the project was coherent, that the plane design was the plane that was needed. Second, he had to come up with a funding to pay for the thousands of engineers and designers involved 30 at the Perry challenges through his authority, by others who had different ideas. And finally you had to keep everybody on track and believing that the project was doable next. So Sutter was able to do all this because he had faith in his design instincts in his company and above all in his engineering team, 6,000 engineers, he called the Incredibles what he expected and what the situation required was long periods of 10 hour, days, and seven day weeks. He may not have rounded up all of the world's smartest engineers, but he had a circle of faith that got results.


He believed that it could be done. And so to this team next, so here is their logo, the Boeing 7 47 Incredibles next the 7 47 was to be bigger and better than other airlines, but it also had Titanic problems of its own. Where was it going to be built, where it was a big enough space to build the behemoths. Second Boeing had other airliners to build against which a 7 47 had to fight for resources like the 7 3, 7 30. It took a long time to get the engines to work, right? And finally, Boeing was running out of money for the startup. Next slide, Joe Sutter said I had trouble getting everything from good people to facilities priority in the wind tunnel. I had to fight city hall as it were every step of the way to get the 7 47 designed, built certified and into service. And then as the rollout began to remake your engine problems and Boeing faced running out of money.


Recession arrived, layoffs began and went up to 60,000. Boeing was headed for the dumper next, but then they solve the problems. The recession went away, they got the engines working, they got the funds and they started producing seven 40 sevens. And yet there had been some very bad years in between, but we nearly came apart. So why did they not give up and liquidate the firm next? They built the world's largest factory. Look at how big this factory is next and build a lot of seven 40 sevens. Next it's the 7 47 changed how people flow and thus change the world. Next, that moment of truth brings us back to the issue of faith. Boeing's collective efficacy meant that they had faith in themselves, their ability to continue the job and to finish it. Faith came from all the promises have been made and kept. They had built the bombers, propeller and jet.


They had built a jet. Airliners is 7 4 7 oh sevens, and their derivatives. They were building a 7 3 7, which was the most popular airliner ever. They built a 7 47, a world changing passenger plane. The Baton has been passed again and again, and they completed big projects next then on the way from the 7 47 to the future, Boeing brought out a completely new airliner. The Boeing triple seven, this airliner was the first one designed completely on the computer. And its grafting was a work of genius led as we have seen by Alan Malali the liner not only showed how legacy Boeing could triumph, but brought into new skills as well. A new philosophy forged by Phil Condit, working together saw brought manufacturing input into the design process. In addition, foreign and domestic airlines were brought in to provide customer input. Next slide. Here's the Boeing triple seven taking off next slide.


But as a new century, Dawn Boeing was a Bart to enter turbulent skies. Boeing's management had entered a period of deep unrest. Unlike the 20th century, CEO's William Allen and T Welson both highly principle men. The leadership that followed was very problematic scandals about military payoffs and elicit affairs caused loss of reputation. A Boeing merger with McDonald Douglas called a clash of cultures that would not be resolved in any easy or good way interference by the federal government did not help next with the merger doubt entered in Boeing had helped to create the USA of the late 20th century, but the airliner business was a technical success. It did not make as much money as it could. And therefore some thought the airline business needed to be tweaked. So that was going to make more money, nevermind that it already done the impossible, nevermind that the 7 47 team had been the Incredibles Boeing needed to become sin. One school of thought incredibly financially successful. Next, the merger with McDonald Douglas led to problems. The new personnel from McDonald Douglas brought the Harvard business school approach to something that was a working cultural icon, insisted that a change. Now it needed to be financially successful. Well, who could argue with that? Who would argue with that? Then they moved Boeing headquarters to Chicago. Why to be closer to the financial center of the United States. Next slide. And here it is, here's the Boeing headquarters in Chicago. Next slide.


But what about keeping faith? The move to Chicago would take management further from the engineers, no longer was the goal of Boeing to be making planes. Now it was to make money. This was a breach of faith, a broken promise. If you break a covenant, there's the price. The price with that. Boeing was no longer to be a great organization whose purpose was to do the impossible. This potential loss of meaning was serious. Next slide, corporate integrity broke down. The new century witnessed a failure of corporate leadership to maintain a high standard of integrity. Will you male and a CEO would not abide deception and dishonesty, but when Harry Stonesifer was fired for having an illicit affair and Phil Condit was forced to resign over the actions of his subordinates, Boeing looked bad to the public and to its workers. Next slide, morale sag, major studies of morale at Boeing show the new corporate culture of teams instead of family reflected a decline them morale, reams of worker show that now Boeing managed was not taking, being taken seriously.


When emails spoke of planes, quote, designed by clowns, being supervised by monkeys. The corporate shenanigans reflected badly on corporate leadership and a demoralized workforce. Next slide, the shady Manu is around the 7 37 max added to all the other problems. The shaky development of the 7 37 max brought all the negative forces to the fore. The idea of Boeing regulating itself by absorbing the FAA function internally with all the conflict of interest that involved was clearly dishonest. It was the opposite of good practice. Then the failure to explain the new MKS software and not embedding it firmly in training and simulation made people feel rotten. This was the opposite of the legacy Boeing's conduct. People knew that things were not right next slide.


So the is merely confirmed with Boeing workers felt when the organization is not right, the planes are not right. Legacy Boeing had not been a perfect organization, but it had been in the organization worker it's felt that was trying to do the right thing. But now that organization was bent. Whereas pilots in the late 20th century had trusted Boeing more than Airbus. Now this seemed to be reversed. The circle of faith had been broken and repair would take time if it took place at all. Next slide. Another circle of faith. That's very interesting is the building of the moon Lander at Grumman. So let me speak about this circle of faith, the faith that unites the creators of technology and its users to do so we will have to go to the aftermath, the Apollo 13 space accident. As you may remember, the Apollo 13 suffered a blow out on the way to the moon. Houston. We have a problem. The three astronauts on board Apollo 13, we're guided to do emergency repairs, reprogram their course, and eventually brought safely back to earth. This was a saga, but it did not end when the astronauts got back, there was one more thing to do. Next slide.


After the three astronauts got back, they had to thank a group that helped save their lives. That group was the Grumman corporation located in Bethpage long island. The Grumman corporation that designed the moon Lander and their voyage home. The astronauts said, use the moon Lander as a lifeboat to cut down on energy consumption until they could reoccupied the command module, which they needed to come back through the atmosphere. But that use had been anticipated in Grumman's design. And the Lander next slide, the use of the Lander is a light boat had been anticipated by its designers at Grumman. It had been designed with extra supplies and utilities, that lot of crew to survive in it for a short period of crisis. When the blowout occurred, the crew could go into it for a while. An emergency had been foreseen, although its exact shape was unknown. The astronauts went back to Grumman to thank the designers for their foresight for one month. What one might call the requisite imagination. Next slide. So here it is the moon Lander, the command Mount module on the right to service module, which it suffered the blob next slide.


But the design of the moon Lander hark back to world war two when Grumman having already designed the FRF Wildcat and excellent aircraft have graded that to the F six F Hellcat, probably the finest carrier plane in world war II Grumman had listened carefully to its pilots in the Pacific and Jake's verbal. Uh, Grummond vice-president had gone to the Pacific to find out what they wanted, but the underlying philosophy was to protect the pilot. Carmen planes were part of the circle of faith between makers and users. Next slide. So an aviation experts wrote about this. He said this aircraft design philosophy embodied a very rugged structure with reliable systems, able to sustain significant damage that would allow the pilot to complete his mission and return home safely pilots got that message. Their planes would get shut up and shot up and they'd still returned home. The Grumman iron works. It protected them. Their faith in Grumman was justified by their experience and their victories and the Pacific war. Next slide.


Now this was also true of the Sidewinder missile and of China lake, which had designed it. China lake was part of a system of faith with the Naval pilots dependent on China Lake's design of air to air missiles. China lake did everything in his power to be sure that the pilots had good weapons and the proper training and maintenance so that everything worked. They even helped the Navy design the missile so they could be used effectively on aircraft carriers. Next slide, here it is. Here's a Sidewinder missile. Next slide. Frank Niemeyer technical director at China lake told me the following. He said in Korea and Vietnam, we helped pilots accomplish their mission and saved their lives. Carrier skippers and carrier air group commanders would come here before they deployed. They would spend a day. We would spend a day with them here telling them everything about our systems, everything we knew about our, their idiosyncrasies.


And in some cases we help train them here. We would also send people out to the carriers to help them whenever they ran into problems, everywhere from the technical, even helping them with their tactical problems. Next slide. When these people came back from deployment, they made it a point to stop here and tell us how they made out how our systems work. What were the bad points and basically how it saved their lives. That is not a monetary reward. That is one of the richest rewards you can get. Thus, the circle of trust was maintained by listening to constant feedback from the pilots. Next slide. So in conclusion from the building of big planes to the effectiveness of air, to air missiles, we see the importance of collective efficacy. Working through a circle of trust that comes from promises kept and a steady cooperation. When trust is present, we can fix the problems before they cause failures and avoid catastrophe and ruin.


But trust is fragile. It needs to be maintained by words and by deeds, it needs to constantly on the part of managers that inattention and neglect can impair. Next culture is the glue that holds these vital processes. Together. Culture binds the person to the work and makes the worker feel that his or her work counts and the right kind of culture also provides a great flow of information and inspiration that brings to bear the extra consideration, the second thought and the requisite imagination that allows the right designs under the right conditions to bring about continuous success. Important human activities will not succeed without a strong and good culture. So here's what I'm looking for. Dialogue and useful critique case studies, potential consulting. Any questions about the concepts? Thank you.