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Owning up to a Failure



Author(s) Michael Pritchard
Authoring Institution Center for the Study of Ethics in Society at Western Michigan University
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Contributor(s) Michael Pritchard
Notes Case study originally published in “Teaching Engineering Ethics: A Case Study Approach” by Michael Pritchard. Center for the Study of Ethics in Society, Western Michigan University, 1992.
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Authoring Institution (obsolete) Center for the Study of Ethics in Society, Western Michigan University
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Year 1992
Publisher National Academy of Engineering, Online Ethics Center
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  • Posted 13 years ago


    For Walt not to say anything at all would suggest that he
    agreed with Norm's views. However, to disagree openly with Norm
    in the meeting would undoubtedly embarrass Norm, who might
    perceive Walt's actions as disloyal both to him and to R&M.
    A compromise course of action would be for Walt to ask for a
    short recess in the meeting so that he could confer with Norm
    and inform him of the change in Walt's views about the failed
    equipment. Such a request would probably catch Norm by surprise
    and place him in the position of having to choose between
    defending a false position or reversing his views about the
    source of the equipment problem. However, this seems a less
    undesirable state of affairs than to be contradicted by Walt
    directly during the meeting. For Walt not to say anything at
    all until after the meeting would constitute his participating
    in the promulgation of false information and would not be
    adequately justified by any ethical considerations, such as
    loyalty to employers. Therefore, the most reasonable course of
    action for Walt is to ask for a brief recess in order to confer
    with Norm.


    The course of action that Norm is recommending may produce
    the best overall consequences if the equipment failure is
    highly unlikely to reoccur in the future and if R&M's
    openly accepting fault would cause XYZ to purchase inferior
    equipment from R&M's competitors in the future. Perhaps
    Norm believes that this is what would probably occur. However,
    if XYZ is firmly convinced that the equipment failure is
    R&M's fault, then for R&M to continue to refuse to
    acknowledge this fact may well antagonize XYZ, even with
    R&M's `good will' gesture. From the information given, it
    is difficult to say how XYZ would react to R&M's taking the
    negotiating position that Norm is recommending, but it is
    probably safe to assume that neither Walt nor Norm would be
    very certain what XYZ's reaction would be. What is certain is
    that the course of action that Norm is recommending is
    deceptive and dishonest. In the absence of ethical
    considerations adequately supporting Norm's recommended course
    of action, Walt's view that R&M should be open and honest
    about the equipment failure in its discussions with XYZ is the
    reasonable position.

    The problem is, of course, a "management problem" in the
    sense that R&M management must decide what to do. However,
    since Walt is being asked to go along with and support Norm's
    judgment it is also his problem, and for Walt automatically to
    defer to Norm in this matter without considering the ethical
    ramifications of such a deferral would be for Walt to fail to
    act autonomously.


    Engineers who move into management should realize that
    engineers' dissenting from management's views on technical
    matters as well as on business matters is not uncommon and that
    for management to expect and to insist that engineers not take
    any position on any issue that is incompatible with
    management's position on that issue violates engineers'
    autonomy and conflicts with engineers' obligations to be
    objective and truthful. Engineering managers must recognize
    that engineers' dissenting from other engineers' views and from
    management's decisions is not unusual and that it is
    unreasonable to expect blind obedience from them.

    Engineers can reasonably be expected to be judicious in
    choosing the ways in which they express their dissent, but they
    should not be expected to express it only when and how
    management chooses.

  • Posted 13 years ago


    XYZ returned a failed piece of equipment to R&M
    Machinery, the manufacturer. At a meeting with Archie Hunter,
    the XYZ representative following the return of the failed piece
    of equipment, Norm Nash represented R&M's "official
    position": the piece of equipment is all right. It was during
    this meeting that Walt Winters, an R&M engineer who was
    intimately acquainted with the kind of equipment XYZ returned,
    suspected that it was not properly tested out by R&M and
    that it failed because of an internal problem.

    Without data to substantiate his suspicions and since he is
    not R&M's "official" representative at the meeting, Walt
    could not conjecture in the presence of the customer. But, he
    can suggest to both Norm and Archie that since there are two
    positions regarding the returned equipment, that Norm arrange
    for engineering to examine it and schedule a follow-up meeting
    to present and discuss the findings. Archie will probably agree
    to this. Hopefully Norm's "official position" has enough leeway
    for him agree, too. After the meeting Walt should discuss his
    suspicions with Norm and arrange to examine the equipment.


    After the meeting, Walt talks to Norm about his diagnosis
    suggesting R&M tell XYZ that the problem is R&M's and
    that they will replace the equipment. Norm replies that he
    doesn't think it wise to acknowledge the failure is R&M's
    fault, hang out our wash (that our failure to properly test out
    the equipment resulted in an internal failure), and lessen
    XYZ's confidence in the quality of our work when "a 'good will'
    gesture to replace the equipment at out own expense should
    suffice." This is strange logic as it implies there was
    something wrong with the equipment R&M originally

    Subsequently, R&M management decides to adjust the
    problem by replacing the equipment because XYZ "have been such
    a good customer all these years" but not tell them the real
    nature of the problem. Again, the implication is that there was
    something wrong with the equipment R&M originally

    Is R&M's fear of losing its reputation for quality and
    reliability the root cause of Norm's "official position" in
    representing management regardless of any fact-finding - to
    protect our reputation at all costs? Or is it the converse. In
    either case, why didn't management ask for engineering's
    analysis? Don't they want to know what, if anything, is wrong
    with the equipment? Don't they realize that engineering can
    analyze equipment failures and improve quality and reliability?
    Don't they recognize the value of longstanding business
    relationships and the years invested in establishing them?
    Aren't they aware of or concerned about what Norm Nash is
    saying or doing on their behalf? And by whose authority does he
    represent the company's "official position"? Are they aware
    this failure could be repeated in the replacement equipment
    provided to XYZ? What will Norm Nash's "official position" be
    then? What will XYZ think about R&M? And, what will
    R&M's equipment replacement policy be when a company who
    hasn't been such a good customer all these years encounters a
    problem with equipment of its manufacture?

    Since R&M's business and reputation is based on
    supplying sophisticated equipment and reliable repair service,
    its management should be concerned enough about any product
    failure. This concern should be demonstrated by the returned
    goods area representative who should use engineering to examine
    any returned equipment and report on its condition. Since
    R&M's policy seems to be to replace defective equipment in
    any event, there is nothing to lose and everything to gain by
    being "straight up" with XYZ and other customers in telling
    them the nature of an equipment problem. R&M also benefits
    by being able to improve their equipment designs.

    This episode should concern Walt because if the resolution
    of this problem is not handled as a cover-up, it comes very
    close. If you have a good supplier relationship as R&M does
    with XYZ, why jeopardize it. You can acknowledge the failure,
    and that the failure resulted from not testing the machine
    properly. Engineers learn from failures. Maybe the failure
    occurred because R&M did not fully understand a some aspect
    of the equipment's use at XYZ.

    Also in deciding to replace the equipment because XYZ has
    been a such a good customer all these years borders on
    hypocrisy. To XYZ, R&M is a supplier. And, XYZ can go
    elsewhere with its business. In representing R&M's
    "official position", Norm creates a problem that makes an
    honest resolution difficult.


    What was really an engineering problem at R&M became a
    management problem because of the "official position" taken by
    Norm and management's decision to see it Norm's way. They have
    placed the firm's reputation with XYZ at risk. The lessons for
    Walt as he moves into management are:

    • The integrity of business and customer relationships must
      be preserved through honest communications.

    • Prepare a position description that includes the typical
      duties, responsibilities, and qualifications of the returned
      goods area representative.

    • Institute a policy of having all equipment returned
      because of a failure, unsatisfactory performance, or any
      other reason examined by a team comprising the returned goods
      area representative and the engineer most knowledgeable about
      the equipment.

    • After examining returned equipment, meet with the
      customer to review the findings and present the proposed
      remedy based on the findings. Thus a failure that is an
      engineering problem should be handled and acknowledged as

    If XYZ has been such a good customer, then R&M must be a
    good and honest supplier. In this case, by agreeing to replace
    the equipment, R&M did not use good judgement or honestly
    solve the problem.

  • Posted 13 years ago


    In the course of a meeting with the customer XYZ, R&M
    engineer Walt Winters understands that failure of a part was
    the fault of R&M, probably due to insufficient testing.
    Should he blurt out this insight then and there? No, one should
    not talk about internal company problems in the presence of the
    customer. Call a recess, or wait. Walt's insight is
    confidential to R&M, and might embarrass them and cost them
    money and customer confidence. Wantonly damaging your own
    company is not appropriate behavior.

    At the same time, what is left on the table is that R&M,
    through Norm, has asserted that the equipment is fine; which it
    isn't. Perhaps Walt should have called a recess in order to
    persuade Norm to abandon this position, if not expressly, at
    least implicitly. The engineer has the responsibility to see
    that management does not repeat errors, even if they might not
    confess to having made them.


    Walt says nothing, and R&M people work out a solution
    with XYZ without admitting any fault. The solution presumably
    satisfies the customer, so it's not clear why R&M should
    have to go further. Nor is there any indication that XYZ is
    harmed in some way by R&M's failure to confess error. XYZ
    is free to draw their own conclusions about what went wrong; if
    they want R&M to tell them, then can make further
    inquiries. Nothing is to be gained at this point by Walt going
    further than management wishes to go. Candor is fine, but at
    times serves no purpose and can be counter-productive.


    The lesson Walt might learn is that honesty is one thing,
    discretion another. Here R&M used discretion in not
    revealing something they weren't asked about. No harm is done,
    the client is satisfied, and presumably R&M was prepared to
    be more candid if asked.

    Can Walt learn anything from negotiator Norm's stonewalling
    by stating R&M's 'official position' that R&M wasn't at
    fault? Apparently Norm believes in playing 'hardball,' and Walt
    doesn't. But the case doesn't give enough information about
    this. Does 'hardball' lead into an adversary relationship which
    is ultimately detrimental to both parties? Is hardball
    necessary to avoid legal problems, or to get a better position
    should there be a legal dispute? Was it really necessary for
    Norm to go out on a limb and adopt an 'official position' which
    turned out to be mistaken, and which potentially could have
    been embarrassing for R&M to retract? In a sense, R&M
    is lucky that XYZ hasn't pushed matters further. They are also
    lucky that the failure was not of such a nature to cause XYZ
    serious problems, or R&M might have had the obligation to
    confess their error voluntarily. Walt might learn something
    about this from this case, but evidently there were no further
    consequences so maybe he didn't.

  • Posted 13 years ago

    Part of being a good professional is making distinctions.
    This is a case that calls for distinguishing between lying,
    deceiving, and merely failing-to-reveal. Lying is much more
    likely to be morally wrong, all things considered, than is
    deceiving; and deceiving, more likely to be morally wrong than
    just failing to reveal.

    To lie is to state as true what you do not believe,
    intending that the person to whom you are speaking (or
    otherwise signaling) will believe what you say. To deceive is
    to try, by whatever means, to get someone to believe what you
    do not believe. To fail to reveal is to do nothing when you
    could provide information that would change what another
    believes. Lying is a kind of deception; deception, in part a
    failing to reveal.

    We have a general moral obligation not to lie. Excusable
    lying is rare; justified lying, rarer still. We also have a
    general moral obligation not to deceive, but both excusable and
    justifiable deception is more common. The reason for this
    difference is that too much lying would make communication
    impossible, while too much (non-lying) deception would simply
    make us more wary where we could not get assurance in words.
    Even in war, this distinction is important. For example, while
    feigning retreat to trick an enemy out of its fortifications is
    morally permissible, using a flag of truce to do the same is
    not. The flag of truce preserves the possibility of
    communication between enemies. War would be crueler if a flag
    of truce meant nothing. The cruelty would, on balance, benefit
    no one. Not everything is fair even in war.

    In contrast, failing to reveal is not necessarily morally
    wrong even where lying or deceiving would be. We have no
    general moral obligation to tell all or to correct the
    misconceptions of others. Indeed, failing to reveal is morally
    wrong (all else equal) only when we have undertaken to reveal
    what we do not reveal (for example, by contracting to warn) or
    when the harm to be prevented is great relative to the cost of
    revealing the information (for example, where a word would keep
    someone from walking off a cliff).

    So, keeping silent is not deceptive just because XYZ might
    benefit from hearing what Winters is thinking. How much one
    should open one's thinking to others is a matter of judgment,
    taste, and convention. Some customers want "only the facts"
    while others want to participate in the fact finding as well.
    Some engineers like the give-and-take of thinking together.
    Others don't want to talk until they know. We recognize much
    latitude in such matters. "Privacy" is the word we most often
    use to invoke this recognition. Winters is under no moral (or
    professional) obligation to express his "suspicions".

    Acknowledging fault under the circumstances is, however,
    another matter. While ordinary people are not obliged "to hang
    out their wash," engineers are. According to the NSPE's Code
    III.l.a., engineers "shall admit and accept their own errors
    when proven wrong." So, if the mistake were Winters', he could
    not keep silent. He would have to tell XYZ at the first

    Of course, the mistake in question is not Winters' (or
    Nash's) but someone else's at R&M. So, Winters is under no
    obligation to speak up. No one's health, safety, or welfare is
    at stake; and, so long as no one asks him what happened,
    nothing in his relationship to XYZ could reasonably lead its
    representatives to misinterpret his silence. The same would be
    true of Nash if, as is likely, he too is an engineer.

    The letter to XYZ explaining the credit adjustment presents
    a different problem. If (as suggested) the adjustment was made
    because R&M made a mistake, the letter, as written, states
    as true what is in fact false. R&M (apparently) wants XYZ
    to believe what R&M knows not to be true, that the credit
    was given (primarily) for one reason when it was in fact given
    (primarily) for another. The letter seems to include a lie.

    That lie cannot be justified (or even excused) on grounds of
    business necessity. XYZ may well see through it, reducing its
    trust in R&M. Even if XYZ does not see through it, the lie
    probably will not benefit R&M. In the short run, the lie
    saves the people responsible from public embarrassment, but
    R&M is unlikely to get any business because of that. In the
    long run, customers are likely to realize that R&M
    routinely covers up its mistakes. Its lies will become useless.
    Indeed, they will probably become worse than useless. They will
    reduce communication between R&M and its customers. R&M
    may lose its customers' help in tracking down and correcting
    problems. Why help if all you ever hear from R&M is that
    it's not their fault but they'll reimburse you anyway? So few
    R&M customers are likely to find such defensiveness
    attractive that the practice of not "hanging out the wash"
    seems certain to hurt R&M in the long run. And, in
    business, the long run is seldom more than a decade.

    Winters might want to think about the problem from another
    angle: what should a faithful agent or trustee of R&M do
    when R&M's longterm interests are at stake? Nash may be
    thinking about R&M, or he may be thinking about his own
    cousin down in Quality Control. The manager who eventually
    wrote to XYZ may know the whole story or only what Nash told
    him. Nash (for whatever reason) may not have told his superiors
    everything. People are not necessarily more open with superiors
    than with customers. Like water, information does not flow
    upward without help. The lying letter may have been the work of
    ignorance, not cunning.

    So, though Winters may think of himself as trespassing on
    management's prerogatives, he probably should check with
    superiors to see how official "the official position" really
    is. I would not be surprised if he found that, while Nash
    honestly thought he was doing what his superiors wanted, they
    wanted no such thing. Instead, they had not really thought the
    matter through yet and now, hearing a different opinion, have
    begun to rethink a practice that had grown up without anyone

    If this turns out to be so, Winters will have learned at
    least two lessons he should take with him into management. The
    first is that he should not emphasize the distinction between
    management concerns and engineering concerns. The most likely
    effect of such emphasis is to bottle up in engineering
    information a manager would like to have. The second lesson
    Winters might take with him is how easy it is for a large
    organization unintentionally to put its agents in a situation
    where they believe the organizations wants them to do things it
    in fact does not want them to do.

    I have so far been assuming that R&M Machinery is not an
    engineering firm, that is, a firm with engineering in its title
    and owned primarily by engineers. An engineering firm, like an
    individual engineer, would have a positive obligation to admit
    its errors (just as individual engineers do) and an obligation
    to make sure its employees understand that.

  • Posted 13 years ago

    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

    Suggested Readings:

    1. 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.

    2. Carper, Kenneth L., ed. 1989. Forensic Engineering,
      Elsevier Science Publishers, New York, NY, pp. 1-31,

    3. Carper, Kenneth L., ed. 1986. Forensic Engineering:
      Learning from Failures, American Society of Civil Engineers,
      New York, NY.

    4. 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.

    5. Martin, Mike W. and R. Schinzinger 1989. Ethics in
      Engineering (2nd edition), McGraw-Hill, Inc., New York, NY,
      pp. 106-142.

    6. Petroski, Henry 1985. To Engineer is Human, St. Martin's
      Press, New York, NY.

Cite this page: "Owning up to a Failure" Online Ethics Center for Engineering 6/15/1992 OEC Accessed: Saturday, August 24, 2019 <>