Our Guest This Episode: Michele Beckjord
The NTSB, National Transportation Safety Board, is an independent federal agency which investigates every civil aviation accident in the US and significant accidents in other modes of transportation such as highway, marine, railroad and pipeline.
Michele Beckjord is the Supervisory Investigator-In-Charge for the NTSB – Office of Highway Safety. She explains to us how the NTSB investigates and brings projects to the elected Board Members. Michele also describes the mission and the core values of the NTSB, their recommendations, and their Most Wanted List.
Having served as a Senior Survival Factors Investigator and Senior Project Manager, Michele has led survival factors investigations of major highway crashes involving school buses, motor coach fires, and bridge collapses. She has taken the lead role in managing major investigative hearings and safety forums, and has also written and managed major accident investigation products voted on by the NTSB’s Board Members.
Michele gives us an insight into the project stakeholders and her team of investigators. She describes her project deliverable while giving some examples of recent projects.
Favorite Quotes from Our Talk:
“You’re never an expert in a project you’re handed. You’re the project manager. It’s not your job to be the expert in that particular area. It’s your job to get that project managed to its completion point.”
“...I think that to me is the quality of a good manager, is to let the people who know what they’re talking about talk about it.”
The podcast for project managers by project managers. The NTSB: hear about managing projects for the National Transportation Safety Board. Our guest Michele Beckjord is the Supervisory Investigator in Charge and Project Manager for the NTSB Office of Highway Safety. Michele explains the investigative process and describes some positive changes from NTSB projects.
Table of Contents
05:16…The Supervisory Investigator in Charge
05:16…NTSB Project Manager Role
08:02…Disaster Response Teams
09:50…Incident Response Criteria
12:14…NTSB Most Wanted List
13:46…Sharing Lessons Learned
16:00…Following Up NTSB Recommendations
17:34…Some NTSB Projects
19:09…Avoiding Emotional Burnout
22:58…Stages of the NTSB Investigation Process
28:17…Growing into the Job
32:01…Getting Accurate Information
33:18…Positive Changes from NTSB Investigations
36:40…Find Out More about NTSB Projects
MICHELE BECKJORD: You’re never an expert in a project you’re handed. You’re the project manager. It’s not your job to be the expert in that particular area. It’s your job to get that project managed to its completion point.
NICK WALKER: Welcome to Manage This, the podcast by project managers for project managers. Every couple of weeks we meet to try to get to the heart of what you face every day as a professional project manager. And we do that by talking with people who are right there with you, facing their own challenges and finding their own solutions.
I’m your host, Nick Walker, and with me is Bill Yates, who thankfully is the one who keeps us on track around here. And Bill, we often hear in the news stories of accidents involving aircraft, railways, ships at sea, vehicles on highways. Our guest is someone right there in the thick of all those stories.
The National Transportation Safety Board.
BILL YATES: She is. And we’re going to talk about the National Transportation Safety Board and have a conversation with Michele. And just I’m fascinated in seeing how does a project manager manage the situations that she deals with, with the high impact that it has, the high visibility, and just the high stakes of these types of projects.
NICK WALKER: Yeah. Let’s get into this just by talking a little bit about the National Transportation Safety Board. The NTSB is an independent federal agency charged with investigating every civil aviation accident in the U.S., and other significant accidents on land and sea. It also issues safety recommendations aimed at preventing future accidents. Listen to this number: 14,900. That’s how many safety recommendations the NTSB has made in its 52 years of existence. And more than 80 percent of them are implemented.
We’re looking at kind of a different approach to project management today with our guest, Michele Beckjord. Michele is the Supervisory Investigator in Charge for the NTSB Office of Highway Safety. She has a B.A. in Criminal Justice from American University and a Master of Forensic Science from George Washington University. She has worked for the National Transportation Safety Board since 1995 and has served as a senior survival factors investigator and senior project manager. Ms. Beckjord has led investigations of major highway crashes involving school buses, motor coach fires, and bridge collapses. As a project manager, she’s also taken the lead role in managing major investigative hearings, safety forums, and workshops.
Michele, thank you so much for joining us on Manage This. And we want to start by just hearing more about your position as the Supervisory Investigator in Charge and Project Manager for the NTSB Office of Highway Safety. What does that entail?
The Supervisory Investigator in Charge.
MICHELE BECKJORD: Well, I’ll start with the Supervisory Investigator in Charge. We call it an IIC for short. What the ICC does is lead a team of investigators. And each of our investigators have a different background or specialty area they focus on for every investigation that we send a team out. We have three teams in the Office of Highway Safety that covers the entire nation. And so I am one of three IICs. My team, and all the teams, are composed of a human performance investigator, survival factors investigator, a vehicle factors investigator, highway investigator, and then a motor carrier. And so each of those guys has their niche in the investigation. And of course there’s a lot of crossover.
So, for example, our motor carrier investigator is going to go to – let’s just pick Greyhound. If we have an investigation involving Greyhound, he will actually go to the motor carrier’s location and look through their files and look at their driver qualifications. And so but you’re also going to have a human performance investigator that wants to know exactly what the driver was doing. They’ll work in tandem. Also our vehicle investigator is going to be putting that vehicle up on a lift, getting in there and looking at all the mechanical systems, make sure everything was functioning as it should have. Our survival factors investigator will do the interior of the vehicle. So if it’s a motor coach, looking at how did somebody get injured or killed inside the motor coach, and then working with the vehicle investigator to see what type of seats were in there, what type of belts. When was this built? What was any retrofit that might have been done? So everybody works very closely together, but they each have their own area.
BILL YATES: And Michele, do these three – is it often that these three teams are working at the same time, working investigations at the same time?
MICHELE BECKJORD: We have multiple investigations ongoing all the time. So we spend two weeks on call, two weeks in backup, and two weeks off call. So each team does that rotation to cover a six-week period. However, if one of our teams gets sent out on a major crash investigation, the next team in backup may need to go out if there’s another large one that happens so that we don’t miss out on an opportunity to make a difference. And so you need to be right near your phone, and you have a “go bag” with you, and you launch out to wherever that accident will be. We say “launch.” But, you know, if you were talking about deployment, we would go to wherever that accident happens anywhere in the U.S.
NTSB Project Manager Role
Right now, as a project manager – which I’m sort of transitioning out of that role, but I’ve been doing that for about 18 years. The project manager takes the reports that those investigators write, and they turn it into the product that the board votes on.
Our five politically appointed board members will vote on what we present to them in a report fashion. That’s what you end up seeing published on the web, that we can then make recommendations, and everyone can go and read the entire report, factual and the analysis, of what happened, why we think it happened, and what we think the probable actual cause of that, either accident, whether it’s a bridge collapse, a motor coach rollover, a school bus fire, what caused that to happen. So that final product is what I manage as a project manager. So an investigator in charge will do the investigative part and then work hand-in-hand with the project manager once that investigation’s over to turn it into a report and get it before the board members.
BILL YATES: That makes sense. So the deliverable is that final report. That’s what the project manager is ultimately responsible for.
MICHELE BECKJORD: Absolutely. You’re responsible for the final product of a report. But encompassed in that report are all of our safety recommendations.
BILL YATES: Right.
MICHELE BECKJORD: So even as a project manager – so let’s say, for example, I just finished a report on Oakland, Iowa’s school bus fire. All the recommendations in that product will then also tie back to me until they all get closed out by the recipients. They will contact us, and I will work with them on that. So the product never really fully ends. But as a general rule, your product is that project. That project is the report. And the report is telling the story of the investigation.
Mission and Core Values of the NTSB.
BILL YATES: Michele, give us a sense for the mission and the core values of the NTSB.
MICHELE BECKJORD: Well, the core values, there’s four, so you have transparency, you have integrity, you have independence, you have excellence. And so those are relatively new terms that we’ve put out there recently. It used to just be that our mission was investigating accidents that happened in transportation, determining the probable cause, and issuing safety recommendations so that we can try to prevent that type of accident from happening again. Over the last several years, we wanted to develop more of a core value that we could put out there so people really understood it wasn’t just a mission for us, it was how we went about doing that mission that we take a lot of pride in.
And so that’s where that transparency comes about, that we let the entire public know everything we’re doing from start to finish, and how we got to where we are at the end with that project that I put forth to the board members.
Disaster Response Teams
NICK WALKER: Now, do you ever work with disaster response teams and those sort of resources to help meet the needs of the victims themselves, so the families of the victims, that sort of thing?
MICHELE BECKJORD: Absolutely, so as soon as we hear about an investigation or an accident that’s happened, we have folks in what we call our Response Operations Center. And so they monitor all the television stations, and they monitor all incoming calls from across the nation reporting accidents to us, whether that’s aviation, rail, marine, any of those. Once we learn of an accident and decide that we’re going to ahead and launch a team, we are immediately in touch with all those disaster response groups that you talked about. And then we also have an entire group called a Transportation Disaster Assistance office, what they do is they are the liaison between what’s happening in the investigation and the families and friends of those involved in that particular accident or crash.
Our TDA, Transportation Disaster Assistance folks, will then become the go-betweens so that family and friends can understand what’s happening immediately on scene, and then also throughout the entire process of the investigation from start to finish, as well as the product that we bring forward to the board until that project is done.
And those TDA folks are our liaison with the Red Cross, the Police Department, any hospitals, so, for example, that would be part of emergency management services. If you want to know where your loved one went to a hospital, you would contact our TDA, or we would contact you through our TDA to let you know what’s going on immediately on scene. So that’s how we work pretty much from the very start with everybody on scene, all emergency services disaster response.
Incident Response Criteria
NICK WALKER: It’s amazing how much your office actually does whenever there’s an incident like this. So I’m curious, you probably can’t respond to every single highway accident or emergency, what criteria do you use to decide whether or not you’re going to respond?
MICHELE BECKJORD: Well, so aside from the aviation, where they’re required by law to respond to every single civil aviation crash, whether it’s an ultralight plane, all the way up to major investigation, highway we can’t do that. We only have about 32 full-time staff, and that includes our administrative officer, it also includes our office director. And so really when you’re talking about three teams of about six people per team, it’s not a lot to cover the nation. So what we try to do is focus on either repetitive items that we see over and over that are causing accidents that we think, if we highlight this particular accident, we can get some movement on the needle, right, that safety needle, to push forward our recommendation.
And so, for example, school bus fires, that’s been a very big issue in that industry, and we haven’t really dealt with a school bus fire prior to our Oakland, Iowa report we just issued. So we took that one because, with the two fatalities involved, that was important to us. But we might also send a team out, for example, there was an accident in Seattle that did not happen all that long ago, a few weeks, where we sent a smaller team out because there was a female driver of a BMW who crossed over the median and struck a shuttle bus that was being operated for a hotel, which you would think that’s quite a small accident. But we’re very interested on seatbelts in these smaller shuttle buses.
And so we sent a team for that issue area. So you have either a very large media presence will usually prompt us to send a team, or you’ll have issue areas that we are very interested in.
Or you might have emerging technology, for example, we’re doing a lot of Tesla crashes. We’re doing a lot of automated vehicle crashes right now to try to help the public understand at what point their automated vehicle actually is versus what they’re being told they can do, so if your vehicle’s in autopilot, it’s not going to drive for you. We want to highlight just exactly where we are with emerging tech so that people have a real good understanding of what they’re getting into when they’re purchasing that vehicle from a safety standpoint.
NTSB Most Wanted List
BILL YATES: Michele, so this brings me to the question, what is the “most wanted list”? That’s obviously a big thing for you guys, what is your most wanted list?
MICHELE BECKJORD: Our most wanted list are those big areas that we see really are almost always repeated in our probable cause as to what caused an accident, and sometimes those transcend all the different modes. So, for example, while we have distracted driving as a very large issue in highway and causes a lot of fatalities on the road, you can also consider distracted operations that would also be happening in railroad, for example. We’ve had some crashes in the past where we’ve had rail operators that were looking at their cell phone or were doing some other activity while they should have actually been operating the train. And so that is an area that we look at.
One of the other things on our most wanted list which are also issue areas that we want to have the most impact with would be something like medical fitness. So medical fitness of your pilot of your 737, medical fitness of the driver of the school bus that your kids are on, medical fitness for the pilot that would actually be taking a cargo ship through a channel in New Orleans. And so that would cover highway, marine, aviation.
BILL YATES: Right.
MICHELE BECKJORD: So those issues on our most wanted list are the ones that we revisit every single year and that board members will vote to make sure that those are really the hot topics that we find we could do the most good with our safety recommendations. Those are the areas we find are causing the most crashes or accidents.
Sharing Lessons Learned
BILL YATES: I want to ask a follow-up question on that, so, many project managers work in organizations where lessons learned pop up out of every engagement, out of every project. And one of the things that I hear consistently in different organizations is, hey, we do a great job of identifying lessons learned. We do a terrible job of sharing that. You know, one project team knows it, or another department knows it. But we need to get better at sharing that. So how has your organization approached that? Because obviously you’re very mature in your approach to sharing those lessons learned.
MICHELE BECKJORD: I think one of the things that we do really well is that we have a phenomenal communications office, so they are doing a lot of outreach and advocacy. They have a blog. We also have a YouTube channel which I think is phenomenal for folks to take a look at, that will walk you through. We’ve been doing a lot of videos recently that, if somebody doesn’t want to read a cut-and-dried product, they can actually go in and watch the video. So, for example, on the El Faro disaster, which was the large cargo ship that sank during the hurricane a few years ago, we have a very good video that’s out there that’s actually now been turned into things like “Disasters at Sea” by the History Channel.
So what we try to do is we produce both video for folks to watch, as well as PowerPoint presentations. We have a blog. We have on our website ways for folks to go in and get sort of a shorter synopsis of an accident. They can really just look at it and understand it and walk away with the lessons learned a lot easier than maybe going through a hundred-page report that might be very technical for industry, but not so great for the general public. We also do a lot of going out and talking to folks, I do quite a few speeches in the school bus industry. But we send folks out all over to work to present our safety recommendations, and to us, that’s another way of sharing lessons learned.
We’ll do what we call a “safety alert.” So that will give you a highlight of what happened in an accident and the real crux of what we want you to focus on to fix something in your own agency. We’re trying to get you to learn from this and make quick changes in your own company that actually will set in effect other additional fixes that you might not even know you need. And so that’s kind of where we think that lessons learned can really be helpful.
Following Up NTSB Recommendations
NICK WALKER: Does your agency follow up on these things? Do you go back and make sure that actually they have learned something?
MICHELE BECKJORD: As a matter of fact, we do, through our safety recommendations process, we issue them in the board meeting. We put them in the report, we send letters to the recipients, but it’s not like that’s the end. So our safety recommendations office has a requirement that they have to check in constantly with the recipients to see where they’re at, and we will classify how those recipients are doing implementing what we recommended.
So we have a continuous database that’s always tracking all of our recipients, what the recommendation was, what accident it was issued in, and what they’re doing.
And a lot of times we get feedback in letter format, and all of that’s available to the public, part of our transparency value, folks can go in and quickly look up a recommendation and say, oh, so okay. So that agency is actually doing something, here’s where they’re at. For example, seatbelts on school buses. We issued a recent recommendation out of the Oakland, Iowa report on some fire suppression systems, but also in a special investigation report on school bus rollovers, that we want every state to require lap-shoulder belts on their school buses.
Well, Iowa just passed the rule that every new school bus will now require seat belts of lap and shoulder kind on their school buses. So we wouldn’t have closed that recommendation to them until they got back and told us, yup, we’ve actually passed that law. And so now we can say “closed, acceptable response” because they’ve done what we’ve asked. And so it’s a continuous upkeep with those folks.
Some NTSB Projects
NICK WALKER: You have told us and hinted at some of the projects you’ve worked on in the past. So I’m just curious, are there any that our listeners would be familiar with that you’ve worked on that you can share just a little bit about? So me of the bigger projects, maybe some of those having to do with your most wanted list?
MICHELE BECKJORD: Sure. About three years ago we had a school bus rollover crash in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and it killed six young kids, right around Thanksgiving, and so that one made the news. It was very, very, I would have to say “high profile” just because of the time of year and because the driver was speeding and some of those other factors. And I think that working on that accident and kind of bringing it forward and going out talking to folks after that project has been done has been really informative because a lot of folks, they don’t know what to do when they want to complain about a school bus driver because a lot of the parents had.
So there’s a lot of things that we’re projecting out there from these, it’s not just that it rolled over and that’s the cause. And I think a lot of the projects that I’ve worked on, like, for example, that would be in the most wanted list because he was looking at his telephone, and he was actually talking on the phone when he actually then went speeding through a curve, couldn’t recover in time, and rolled over.
So there were multiple parts of that accident investigation that were on the most wanted list, one was seatbelts on school buses because our most wanted list topic is occupant protection. The other one would be distracted operations, whether it’s distracted driving in his case, or the third one would be kind of oversight of your safety culture. So that’s kind of the – those are the areas that we’re looking at.
Avoiding Emotional Burnout
BILL YATES: Michele, with you bringing this up, I need to ask this question. It’s about burnout, emotional burnout in particular. So I look at the role that you play, and the staff there at NTSB, and just the severity of the projects, the cases that you guys are working, and I’m amazed that you’re able to somehow not burn out emotionally. You know, so many times these incidents involve death or others being hurt, and you see the impact that it has on families. How do you guys avoid burnout? How do you stay emotionally balanced and charged?
MICHELE BECKJORD: It’s hard. We do have a very difficult job. I think one of the things that people forget is that, even though we’ve left the accident scene, we’re taking all of that information with us, and on a daily basis, everything we write about, everything we talk about involved a tragedy. And so I think one of the ways that our folks – there’s a couple ways our folks deal with it. Number one, a lot of them are former law enforcement, and they’ve seen a lot of this in their own communities. And so bringing that with them to the Board, they have a coping mechanism they’ve already used for the past however many years before they came to the NTSB. A lot of them spent 20 years in law enforcement before they came to the NTSB.
So the second part of that is that we have really good folks in our transportation disaster group who know how to provide advice, if we want to go talk to them about it. But I think the third part of it is we’re such a small agency, but we have a huge impact with our recommendations. And seeing what can be done and what is being done by what we produce helps alleviate some of that stress and some of the, I guess, emotional impact of dealing with families because there’s times that I’ll go to an accident scene, and folks, they know who we are.
And they will talk about what they’ve followed that we’ve done in the past, and it kind of gives you like that little bit of a bump, like okay, I can do this, because it comes with a much bigger benefit than the detriment that you might be taking on in that particular time.
I’m not going to say it’s easy, but there’s always that light at the end of the tunnel. So I’ve been working on seatbelts on school buses for the better part of my entire career, 20, 25 years. And to see states finally approving that and getting them on their school buses makes it worth it for everything that I’ve sort of lived through over the years. So those are the reasons why I think our folks are able to do it. But it does take its toll.
BILL YATES: Yeah. That’s very relatable. So I think of others that we’ve had on the podcast in the past who have tackled big issues that take a long time to get there, and some of them are life or death things. And having, you know, like in your case, you can visualize a school bus that’s now safer for the children, those that are on it, because of the seatbelts and the mechanisms and the recommendations that you guys have made. And that visualization and being able to see kind of that future state has to drive you for all those months and years where you’re pushing to get it done, so I get that. It’s a great impact that the team has. I’m sure that keeps you guys all fired up.
MICHELE BECKJORD: It is important. I’ve actually had conversations with families that I’m able to explain to them what’s happening in the investigation, and I think that is the bright light because they know who we are, or they’ll google us. Now that I know who you are and what you can do, it means something to me that something will come out of this. I think that was one of the biggest things that I found as an actual reward in the job, and so I can appreciate how much impact it has in the community, but also impact for us as people. I mean, this has been one of the most rewarding 20-plus years I’ve ever had of work, but I’ve only ever worked at the NTSB. And that’s why I’ve stayed, because I love it so much.
Stages of the NTSB Investigation Process
NICK WALKER: Michele, so I’m just curious, every project has stages that it goes through from start to finish. Your investigations obviously must have stages, can you just briefly take us through some of those stages? And if you’d like to use a project that you’ve recently handled, you can use that as an example, but I’m just curious about what steps are taken.
MICHELE BECKJORD: Well, so I’ll give you my most recent project that I’m currently at almost the tail end of it, and it occurred in Miami, Florida. It happened in March of 2018. And that was when Florida International University was building a pedestrian bridge across Southwest Eighth Street. So a pedestrian bridge in the middle of being constructed actually collapsed and fell down onto the street. And it killed and injured 16 folks because they were in their cars, or they were walking or bicycling, and additionally the bridge construction crew.
So we sent out a major team on that accident, our chairman, Chairman Sumwalt, went there, along with an entire team. I am actually the project manager, not the IIC, on this project, so what ended up happening was we did our investigation on scene. So that’s one phase, and they do everything on scene to gather as much evidence and information as they can. The second stage is that when they come back to headquarters, or if they telework from their home office, they bring with them some information, but they continue to gather facts. And we have spent numerous weeks returning to Miami to go back and revisit the debris, to do testing, to interview.
So you’ve got stage one on scene immediately, stage two, where you may return to the scene or to go out and interview folks or go to a company, you know, their location, which may not be where the accident happened. So you have a lot of factual gathering, we’ll send out a preliminary report on our website to tell the public what’s happening. Then from there we just continue that investigative gathering. Then the team will take all their facts. They’ll write an analysis, so as a project manager, that’s where I become really involved. I go out to the accident scene so I can see it with my own eyes, it’s always better to be a project manager that has a real touch and feel for what project you’re working on.
BILL YATES: Yes.
MICHELE BECKJORD: So then once those guys finish their factuals and their analysis phase, they give all their reports to me, I start to write. That’s the next phase. They’ve populated a public docket of all the factual information, so that next phase is I’m writing the report. At this particular stage, it’s now what we call “report development.” That’s that sort of mid-level. Investigation is done. Report development. There might be some extra research that’s being done, but at this stage I’m putting it all together as my project.
Once I’ve finished writing the report, it goes through multiple interior reviews, just like any project would. You have a lot of people that kind of come in and take a look at it, so we get to where I’m at with the Miami report right now. Then we produce it for the board, we hand it to them, and that’s what we call “on notation.” That means the board members have it. So they can look in the docket at facts, they can go back through and read the entire report, factual and analysis. Now, they’re not allowed to meet on it. I’ll tell you why in a moment. But they’re reading it, they’re digesting it, they’re understanding it, they’re taking notes.
Then what happens is we take it to what’s called a “public board meeting,” it’s called a “sunshine meeting.” The reason it’s called that has to do with our core value of transparency again, and integrity. The board members will not discuss that report unless they’re all together, by law, in front of the general public. So that is when we will do small PowerPoint presentations about our specific areas. Like for example our human performance investigator might talk about what he found in the accident.
So there’s kind of this visual storytelling for the general public and for the board members. Once that’s all done, they will grill us with all kinds of questions about the investigation. They’ll grill us about the analysis, what we found, and why we’re making recommendations that we’re making because they are the ones that sign that product at the end. It’s their signatures that go on it, not ours, so that sunshine meeting can last anywhere from an hour to four hours.
BILL YATES: Wow. And is that the whole team, Michele? Is that you and all the team?
MICHELE BECKJORD: It’s all of our managers. It’s our team. And folks can come to this. They can come and sit in the audience, if they want to, so they can’t participate, but they can be there in person. And we also webcast it so that anybody across the nation can watch when they want to. That board meeting the board members vote on that product, and so if they vote to pass it is usually the best outcome. Like they will in Miami. We’re anticipating that Miami board meeting will be October the 22nd, so I’m getting my project ready to hand it to them next week for their 30-day review.
When we’re at that board meeting, we anticipate all the involved parties to also be there, people that would have been on the investigative side. So factually that would be Florida International University, it would be the folks that were constructing the bridge, which is FIGG Bridge Design. So those parties that were involved in the investigation in our party system and as part of the investigative outcome, they’re there at that meeting. Once those board members vote on it, that product is done. It then gets published within a few weeks because, you know, we need to do some technical cleanup. But that’s where it’s at. And then we start to wait for those safety recommendations to be sent to the recipients and for their response.
Growing into the Job
BILL YATES: Michele, I’ve got to ask you this question, so I am thinking that – let me just ask you this straight up. Do you have a law degree?
MICHELE BECKJORD: I do not.
BILL YATES: So I don’t either, but there are times at work where I feel like I’m having to play attorney. And I’m just, I mean, so I’m sitting here just shaking, thinking, if I had to produce a report, if my deliverable was something that was going to be read in public about often a tragic event, and could have ramifications for big companies in the industry, perhaps school bus manufacturers or airplane manufacturers, et cetera, there’s a lot at stake. So these are high-stakes communications that you have to provide, I guess my question is how did you grow into this? How did you figure out, okay, what do I share? What do I not share? What’s appropriate? What’s not appropriate? What words do I choose? And I don’t have a law degree, so what am I doing here?
MICHELE BECKJORD: For every case you’re learning something new, so I would assume that that would be kind of something that would go across the board for almost all project managers.
BILL YATES: Yes.
MICHELE BECKJORD: You’re never an expert in a project you’re handed. You’re the project manager. It’s not your job to be the expert in that particular area. It’s your job to get that project managed to its completion point. So that’s the same for us, now, at the NTSB we have a limited number of staff.
So we have to rely on what we call the “party system.” The party system involves those folks with technical expertise of their particular transportation area, whether – like I’m going to pick Boeing. Even if we have an accident involving a Boeing airplane, we would have technical. We wouldn’t have attorneys or insurance, but we would have the technical people at Boeing walking us through, side by side, as we’re investigating that accident so that they can point it out and say, “That screw belonged on that portion of that wing,” because that’s what they know.
BILL YATES: Right.
MICHELE BECKJORD: And then that’s how the party system works, that’s why we have to be as transparent and keep up the integrity reputation we have is because people get a little concerned with the party system because they think, well, isn’t that the very folks that are involved? Yes, but we’re independent, one of our other core values. While we take what they have to say on a technical level, we still do our investigations ourselves. So, for example, in the Miami bridge collapse, I had to learn a lot about bridge construction. That’s part of being a manager is that I had to learn enough to get it done appropriately, but not enough to where I needed to go out and get a Ph.D. in it.
BILL YATES: Right.
MICHELE BECKJORD: That’s what that party system’s for. We get all of their documents from all the involved parties. so we have all their bridge plans. We have all of their email communications, a lot of those kinds of things, so when we put a product forward, yes, there is a timeline, and it can get very, very stressful. And we are very confident in what we find because we have done a very thorough investigation, and all of our folks have expert areas.
Sometimes we need to reach out and hire other experts to come and assist us. For example, Federal Highway Administration is known for bridge construction and oversight. So we worked with them to do a lot of the work on the Miami bridge collapse because of their level of expertise, and they’re another federal agency that can work with us on that. So that’s where there’s a lot of sharing. And you also know, as you go through your project, particularly when you do a phase called “technical review” with your parties, where you present to them a write-up of all your factual information, they can come back and tell you if you had it correct. That’s a point in time where they can tell us, technically you got everything accurate. That’s why we are pretty confident when we go to the board.
Getting Accurate Information
BILL YATES: So what advice do you have to project managers who are in a situation like you are where you rely on other subject matter experts to provide you with great data that’s going to be a part of your product? How does the project manager know who to trust and know when they’re being, let’s say misled, or not getting really accurate information? What advice do you have?
MICHELE BECKJORD: Well, keep digging.
BILL YATES: Okay.
MICHELE BECKJORD: And I think the best thing that you can possibly do is recognize that folks want to help. So it’s all about the approach and how you ask them for that help. So if you don’t necessarily have all the information that you need, you can ask others for it. One of the things that I’ve learned as a project manager is that I don’t ever assume I know something, even if I’ve written about it multiple times before. There is always somebody else that knows something you don’t know. And so you just ask. And I think that to me is the quality of a good manager is to let the people who know what they’re talking about talk about it.
Those folks talk about what they know. And that’s how the project manager can rely on the information they receive is by making sure everybody has a voice, and you don’t always go to one single point of contact.
Positive Changes from NTSB Investigations
NICK WALKER: Michele, as we wrap up our time here, I just want to ask you. You mentioned earlier that part of the job satisfaction that you have in your position comes from the positive changes you’ve seen from the work you’ve done. Can you just list a few of those changes maybe that would be very visible to us that you have seen come out of investigations you’ve done?
MICHELE BECKJORD: Sure. You know, one of the biggest surprises that I’ve found in my investigative career was that folks that are involved in accidents, or their families, want to talk to us. At first you would think, well, they’re in the midst of a tragedy. I shouldn’t necessarily approach them. But it’s actually the opposite. They will call and ask to be interviewed. They will call and ask to tell us information.
And so what I would think about directly is, for example, we used to do a lot of investigations of motor coaches, and I’m sure we still will for a while, where the motor coach would roll over, and you would have folks that were ejected. And over 20-plus years we had lots of folks telling the NTSB there’s no way we would ever put three-point seat belts on motor coaches. It’s too expensive. It’s not what people want.
So as it turns out, Congress mandated that there needs to be a lap-and-shoulder belt on every motor coach built after the year, I believe it was 2017. That’s huge because I don’t think folks have ever really realized, for example, if your child is going on a ski trip through his high school, or her high school, and you say, sure, that’s great, you sign off on that waiver, and that kid goes and gets on a motor coach and goes on a ski trip, and there’s an accident with that motor coach, it’s almost eye-opening to folks they didn’t ever realize there was no seatbelt on that motor coach. And so they would come and ask me why as I’m interviewing, ‘why was there no seatbelt for my child?’
And now I can say there is now because of all the investigations we’ve done, because of how many times Congress has heard us ask for that and recommend it. Now that’s showing up on those motor coaches.
So the next time your kid gets on a motor coach, find out if there’s a seatbelt on there, that’s a very visible opportunity to see what the NTSB has done. Other things would be electronic stability control. Maybe you might not necessarily know that’s on your school bus, but you certainly see it as an option and now a standard on a car you’re going to buy, and you’re happy about that. We got those on school buses, and so that’s part of what we do that I can see a visible result because an electronic stability control mechanism might very well have helped in the Chattanooga, Tennessee case where those six kids were killed because that driver lost control of that vehicle because he was speeding.
Electronic stability control helps even in your car when you start to lose traction to restabilize your vehicle. And so those are sort of the things that we see as technologies being put on vehicles as a result of our safety recommendations.
Also Our recent Oakland, Iowa investigation of the school bus fire, based on some of our recommendations, some of these school systems in states are now requiring that all school buses have fire suppression systems on them. That can make a huge difference, a life or death difference when a fire, which can progress through a school bus in under four minutes from start to finish, like a complete engulfing, that can get all the kids off.
And so those are some of the products that we know are out there, folks might see the school bus fires and go, oh, my gosh. But now they can understand we can get those put out faster because we’ve made the recommendation to do that. I hope that answers what you were asking.
Find out More about the NTSB Projects
NICK WALKER: Yes, I appreciate that. Where can we find out more about the NTSB and about current projects?
MICHELE BECKJORD: NTSB.gov. So between the NTSB.gov and going onto YouTube and entering “NTSB videos,” you’ll see all kinds of videos. Like I said, the El Faro marine disaster, anything that we might be putting out there for the public to know is going to be on YouTube. That’s actually a faster way to find things. But our website will show you upcoming board meetings, it’ll show you current investigation status. It’ll show you where our investigators are because there’s a map with pins telling you where we’re at at that particular time, what we’re looking at. So our website is a very useful place.
BILL YATES: And those final reports, are those available there, too?
MICHELE BECKJORD: They are.
BILL YATES: Wow.
MICHELE BECKJORD: For example, if you went to NTSB.gov, and then you typed in “Oakland, Iowa,” the PDF of that accident report will be right up there available for you. Or “school bus safety” on our website brings up a whole web page just of all of the investigations that we’ve done recently on school buses, and also links to the reports. So you can grab the PDF right from there, or a small summary, if you’re more interested in reading a couple summary pages rather than a full report.
NICK WALKER: Michele, we thank you so much for taking the time with us. We have a gift just to thank you for the time. This is the official Manage This coffee mug, so we’re going to send one of those to you.
MICHELE BECKJORD: And it’s large enough for all the coffee we need as project managers.
NICK WALKER: It’s a big one, yes, it is. Thanks again.
MICHELE BECKJORD: Thank you so much, it was a pleasure.
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So that’s all for this episode of Manage This, be sure to listen again on November 20th for our next edition. Until then, keep calm and Manage This.