The Warhead Cable Test Dilemma
It was Monday morning at Bryson Corporation’s cable division assembly plant. Stanton Wong, the quality supervisor, had been worrying all weekend about a directive he had received from his boss before leaving work on Friday. Harry Jackson, the plant manager and a vice president of operations, had told Stanton unambiguously to disregard defects in a batch of laminated cable they had produced for a major customer, a military contractor. Now, Stanton was wondering what if anything he should say or do.
Bryson Corporation was a large conglomerate headed by an aggressive CEO who had established a track record of buying and turning around low-performing manufacturing firms. Harry Jackson had been sent to the cable plant shortly after it had been acquired, and he was making headway rescuing what had been a marginal operation. The word in the plant was that corporate was pleased with his progress.
Harry ran the plant like a dictator, with nearly absolute control, and made sure everyone inside and outside the organization knew it. Harry would intimidate his direct reports, yelling at and insulting them at the least provocation. He harassed many of the young women in the office and was having an affair with one of the sales account managers.
Stanton’s two-year anniversary on the job had just passed. He was happy with his progress. He felt respected by the factory workers, by management colleagues, and often even by Harry. His pay was good enough that he and his wife had felt confident to buy a house and start a family. He wanted to keep his reputation as a loyal employee. He had decided early on that he was not about to challenge Harry. At least, that was Stanton’s approach until the warhead cable issue came along.
The warhead cable was part of a fuse system used in missiles. In the production process, a round cable was formed into a flat, ribbon-like shape by feeding it through a lamination machine and applying specific heat, speed, and pressure. The flattened cable was then cut into specific lengths and shapes and shipped to the customer, a defense contractor.
As part of his quality control duties, Stanton used a standard procedure called an elevated heat seal test to ensure the integrity of the product. The cable was bent at a 90-degree angle and placed in an oven at 105 degrees C for seven hours. If the seal did not delaminate (pop open at the corners), then the product passed the test. This procedure was usually performed on cable from early runs while the lamination machine operator was still producing a batch. That way, if there was a problem, it could be spotted early and corrected.
When a batch of cable was ready for shipment, Stanton was responsible for preparing a detailed report of all test results. The customer’s source inspector, Jane Conway, then came to the plant and performed additional sample testing there. On inspection days, Jane tended to arrive around 9:00 a.m. and spend the morning reviewing Stanton’s test data. Typically, she would pull samples from each lot and inspect them. She rarely conducted her own elevated heat seal test, however, relying instead on Bryson’s test data. Stanton and Jane often had lunch together at a nearby restaurant and then finished up the paperwork in the afternoon.
The prior week, during a very busy time, a large order for the warhead cable came in with a short turnaround period. Stanton tested a sample taken from an early lot and had good results. But his testing on Friday revealed problems. Of 10 samples, two failed. That afternoon, Stanton went to Harry’s office with the failed samples to show him the delamination. Before Stanton could say a word, Harry called in the production manager and cursed him out. He then turned to Stanton and said, “Let’s wait and see if the source inspector catches this problem.” Stanton reminded him that typically the source inspector didn’t perform this particular test. Harry responded, “Well, most of the samples passed.” Stanton replied, “Yes, but some failed. That shows inconsistency in the lot. The protocol requires that a test failure be reported for such results.”
Harry had already made up his mind. “Don’t tell me what I can and cannot do! The decision is mine to make, and what I have decided is that we will see if the source inspector finds the failure!”
All weekend, Stanton worried about Harry’s directive. Bryson cables were used to manufacture fuses in missiles. Stanton thought about several people he knew from high school, who were now on active duty in a war zone overseas. He thought about possible harm to innocent civilians or even to U.S. service members if a missile misfired. He wondered if anyone in the parent corporation could help, but did not know anyone there to call.
1. Please identify three ethical issues at Bryson Cable, and explain why you think the issues you have identified are ethical ones. (15 points possible)
2. Do you think it would be right or wrong for Bryson Cable to sell the faulty cable to the customer? Please use three methods of ethical reasoning to support your view. (25 points possible)
3. What do you think Stanton should do or say now? Please identify three actions he might take to resolve the three ethics problems — one action for each problem. (10 points possible)