Kenneth L. Carper's Commentary on "Owning up to a Failure"
The fundamental moral concept of honesty is at stake in this
case study. Norm Nash, representing the position of management,
has made the decision to deny the possibility of a defective
product. This decision has been made on the basis of public
image and ignores the technical opinion given by Walt Winters,
one of the firm's engineers.
Winter's silence is probably appropriate in the first
meeting with the client. His position is one of technical
support, not public relations. Also, his suspicions are not yet
confirmed, and a preliminary contradiction of Nash's statement
is unwarranted. Winters is correct in raising his objections
directly with Nash following the meeting with the client.
Norm Nash's reaction is unfortunate. Walt Winters should be
distressed by this reaction. His first move should be to
disassemble the equipment to confirm his diagnosis, if
possible. If the evidence supports his hypothesis, he should
then press Nash vigorously to deal honestly with the
While this one experience with one executive may not be
indicative of the attitudes of all management executives in the
corporation, Winter should observe corporate management
decisions carefully for other moral deficiencies. The
expression that this is merely a "management problem" of little
concern to technical staff can lead to serious consequences. If
management decisions routinely overrule factual technical
information, placing public relations over honesty, the stage
has been set for potential moral disaster. There are many
examples from all engineering disciplines. One well-documented
case is the Morton-Thiokol treatment of the events leading up
to the Challenger Space Shuttle accident (Boisjoly 1987).
One puzzling question comes to mind: What is the cost of
honesty here? The relationship between R&M and XYZ is
firmly established, based on years of reliable service. An
honest admission of equipment failure will not damage such a
relationship. Confidence is built, not destroyed, by honesty
and integrity. This client is left with unanswered questions:
Is this an equipment deficiency? Is it an installation problem?
Has the breakdown occurred due to operator error or improper
maintenance? These unanswered questions may lead to suspicions.
Unanswered questions are far more likely to undermine client
confidence than an honest admission of potential manufacturing
defects. And Nash has already agreed to replace the equipment
at no cost to the customer. What possible economic cost could
honesty demand beyond this?
It is precisely the lack of economic cost that makes this
case so disturbing. The lessons for Winters, potentially a
future manager, are clear: If honesty can be compromised in
such a trivial instance, why should one insist on integrity
when the costs are high? Honesty is not always this
inexpensive. Sometimes it costs a great deal. When the stakes
are high, surely it will be easier to dismiss moral
The image of infallibility cultivated by managers like Nash,
and their unwillingness to admit fault leads to unrealistic
expectations by clients. When failures do occur, society is
unprepared for the consequences.
The concept of risk is not at all well understood by the
public (Martin and Schinzinger 1989). Instead of providing
assistance in understanding this concept, many engineers and
managers like Nash have encouraged unrealistic expectations by
their attitudes. The public has become more intolerant of
failure and more suspicious of the technical experts who are
unable to deliver the promised risk-free society.
In fact, the very foundation of engineering design is based
in trial-and-error experience. The state-of-the-art cannot be
advanced without failure (Petroski 1985). The implication of a
condition where failure does not occur is that technology is
not advancing. When products do not fail once in awhile, one
must conclude that they are inefficient and over-designed.
Technical professionals and product manufacturers have a
clear ethical responsibility to communicate honestly about
failures, thus contributing to the safety and reliability of
products and the advancement of engineering design practice
(Carper 1989, 1986, Gnaedinger 1987). Admittedly, this
communication has been greatly hindered by the expanding
litigiousness of contemporary American society.
Finally, some additional questions ought to be considered.
It has been noted that the cost of honesty is very small in
this case. What if the anticipated cost were higher? What if
XYZ were a new prestigious client, with no established business
relationship? An honest admission of fallibility might destroy
the relationship in its infancy, with implications for many
employees of R&M. What if the equipment failure had
resulted in great economic losses to XYZ, as products and other
equipment may have been damaged by the failure? What if serious
injuries, or even deaths, were caused by failure of this
equipment? Should the actions of Nash and Winters be any
Do these more serious consequences and potential costs
create an intrinsically different moral situation, or is the
situation merely made more complex by the legal implications?
Does the fear of litigation dictate the appropriate moral
Unfortunately, the example provided by Norm Nash gives Walt
Winters very little to encourage principled moral
- Boisjoly, R. M. 1987. "Ethical Decisions: Morton Thiokol
and the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster," presented at the
Winter Annual Meeting, American Society of Mechanical
Engineers, Boston, MA, December 13-18.
- Carper, Kenneth L., ed. 1989. Forensic Engineering,
Elsevier Science Publishers, New York, NY, pp. 1-31,
- Carper, Kenneth L., ed. 1986. Forensic Engineering:
Learning from Failures, American Society of Civil Engineers,
New York, NY.
- Gnaedinger, John P. 1987. "Case Histories: Learning from
Our Mistakes," Journal of Performance of Constructed
Facilities, American Society of Civil Engineers, New York,
NY, Vol.1, No. 1, pp. 35-47.
- Martin, Mike W. and R. Schinzinger 1989. Ethics in
Engineering (2nd edition), McGraw-Hill, Inc., New York, NY,
- Petroski, Henry 1985. To Engineer is Human, St. Martin's
Press, New York, NY.
Cite this page:
"Kenneth L. Carper's Commentary on "Owning up to a Failure""
Online Ethics Center for Engineering
National Academy of Engineering
Accessed: Sunday, November 23, 2014