Over the years that this column has run, we have seen considerable advancements in safety management systems, data collection on maintenance errors and risks, the science of fatigue, and many other topics around the safe execution of aviation maintenance. However, beneath all this, one fact remains a constant: Maintenance is performed by humans. No matter how much science and procedure an organization applies, people will perform at their fullest potential only when they feel they are making a difference, that their input is important, and they are valued members of a team contributing to a cause greater than themselves.
Call it culture. Call it leadership. Call it what you like, but the way in which an organization communicates with and treats its technicians is one of the most—if not the most—critical underlying aspect of error reduction.
Richard Komarniski, president of Grey Owl Aviation Consultants, put it well when he wrote in a 2004 article: “All accidents come back to lack of communication. In organizations where technicians are encouraged, praised, listened to and held accountable for their work, we see successful companies.”
For older generations of workers who were expected to just get the job done and received feedback only when they made mistakes, it can be tough to understand why today’s workforce wants more frequent feedback—and needs most of it to be positive. It can be tougher still to take action on it. Yet the outcome of a positive, engaged and intentional communication strategy—a more dedicated workforce—is essential for safety.
“When a suggestion is made, make sure that you as a manager follow through and do not just let the suggestion go into a black hole of inaction. Every suggestion is not possible to implement, but work through them and provide feedback on the status of the suggestions,” Komar-niski urged. “We have a lot of bright people who work in our organizations. This in turn creates employees who are motivated, safety conscious and committed to error prevention.”
So what does this look like in practice? Kevin and Jackie Freiberg
(www.freibergs.com), experts in workplace leadership, innovation and culture, often work with leaders to help them motivate their people to bring a heightened sense of commitment and accountability to the workplace. They said there are several things today’s best “servant leaders” say to draw the best out of their workers:
•“Here’s our plan.” Don’t dictate, share a vision. Get everyone on your team looking in the same direction toward the same goal. “People will offer great suggestions if they understand the bigger picture,” say the Freibergs.
•“What do you need?” Great leaders focus on what their technicians need—not just to finish whatever job is in the hangar that day, but also what they need personally and professionally. If someone is going through a divorce or dealing with a critically ill child, do they need some time off or some less mentally intensive tasks for a while? If they aspire to a leadership role, how can you help them chart a path to getting there—and then make sure they get the training and opportunities they need to reach their goals? “Servant leaders help pave the way for others to stretch, grow and develop,” say the Freibergs.
•“Tell me more.” Technicians, on the front lines of every maintenance operation, are the most potent sources of ideas for improving the operation. But all too often, their ideas are ignored, misunderstood or too quickly dismissed as unworkable. It only needs to happen once; the second time a worker has a bright idea, he’ll think, “It won’t matter—no one will do anything about it anyway” and keep it to himself. To make real inroads to improving safety, ask for input, then stay quiet and listen. Give your full attention. Thank technicians for their ideas, then follow up with them in a timely way, either to let them know how their ideas are being used or to tell them precisely why they aren’t being used—and to encourage them to keep coming up with suggestions. In so doing, you will see a growing number of great ideas pour in from a more highly engaged workforce.
•“Let’s celebrate!” In maintenance, it is all too easy to slip into the trap of rewarding hard work with more hard work. When jets are lined up for maintenance, pausing to commend a job well done can seem like a waste of time. It isn’t. As a team, come up with meaningful ways to celebrate wins and shout out the people who have performed exceptionally well. It will elevate the performance of the entire team.
“By changing your words,” say the Freibergs, “you can change your world,” and your safety record.
A version of this article appears in the December 1/8 issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology.
Editor’s note: Heather Baldwin has been writing this human factors column since its inception in 2010, contributing many thought-provoking and practical ideas to make the industry safer. She will continue to write for the MRO Edition but has decided this will be her last column.