MGR: High Reliability, From the Hudson to Longwood with Captain “Sully” Sullenberger

MHSubmitted by:Michelle Higginson, MBA, Senior Marketing Communications Specialist

On Wednesday, November 11th, Boston Children’s staff was treated to a Management Grand Rounds featuring guest speaker Captain “Sully” Sullenberger. Captain Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger, III is best known for his role in the “Miracle on the Hudson,” in which he piloted US Airways Flight 1549’s unpowered emergency water landing in the Hudson River.

Though widely regarded as a hero for this specific event and the successful evacuation of all 155 passengers and crew, Sullenberger has been dedicated to safety for the entire duration of his career. He is an aviation safety expert, accident investigator and author, serves as a CBS News Aviation and Safety Expert, and is the founder and chief executive officer of Safety Reliability Methods, Inc., a company dedicated to management, safety, performance, and reliability consulting.

Sullenberger shared many candid stories, thoughtful responses and words of wisdom that bridged our respective worlds of aviation and pediatric healthcare together. In regards to both his experience and Boston Children’s enterprise-wide high reliability commitment to ensuring zero preventable harm occurs to any patient, family or employee, three words rang true: every moment matters.

These are some of the ways in which we can apply Sullenberger’s lessons to our own roles, through Boston Children’s three pillars of high reliability.

Speak up for safety. Doing what’s right sometimes meets resistance. That’s something Sullenberger never let stand in his way, even if it meant delaying a flight to have a faulty flight control computer replaced, which resulted in a call from his chief pilot questioning his decision. He has stood firm against the pressure to allow erosion of safety standards for the sake of cost or expedience, and is vocal about the compelling business case for quality and safety.

Communicate clearly. Sullenberger noted that his only training for water landing was in the form of a theoretical classroom discussion, which took place quite early in his career. He and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles had 208 seconds to get it right the first time. Able to identify bird strikes as the cause of dual engine failure, they quickly discussed their options with the air traffic controller. In the seconds the plane descended, next steps were communicated, feedback was provided and considered, and accountability was taken.

Pay attention to detail. Whether in patient care or airline travel, ignorance is a luxury not to be afforded. And that attention to detail and renewed commitment to safety is something, Sullenberger says, starts at the top. He quoted Warren Bennis: “You can manage things, but people deserve to be led.” Cultures that value mindfulness and systematic approaches are better prepared to identify risks and avoid even the rarest of negative events.

It’s been almost 49 years since Captain Sully took his first flying lesson, and he would be the first to say that he hasn’t stopped learning. Even lessons from adverse events, like the “Miracle on the Hudson”, he has learned to own as part of him, rather than being the victim of something that happened to him. We will get there, too, but it will require our engagement and commitment to excellence. You have to crawl before you walk, and walk before you fly.

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