Marc Szepan
Marc Szepan

Opinion: Beware The Universal Best Practices Trap

Best practices may work at headquarters, but MROs that don’t consider unique local environmental factors could be doing a disservice to employees and their businesses.

Printed headline: Best Practices Are Not Universal

You are a global MRO provider home-based in temperate North America or Western Europe. One of your shops is located in a tropical emerging market where your local workforce spends an average of 2 hr. on the road just to get to work.

Is the human factors approach at your home base really effective in this environment?

One of the key trends in commercial aviation over the past decades has been globalization. This has applied as much to OEM supply chains as to operator alliances. Similarly, over the past decades, leading MRO providers have grown from being regionally focused to becoming truly global players. MRO industry leaders are characterized not only by global market reach but by global networks of local MRO shops.

As leading MRO providers have developed into global operators capable of delivering identical turnaround times and quality levels across globally distributed sites, a key performance driver has been the rollout of home-base best practices to local MRO shops. This best-practices-based operations strategy has proven to be highly successful with regard to the nuts-and-bolts areas of MRO such as hangar and shop facility design, tooling and equipment, maintenance procedures, work flow and IT systems. However, in the area of safety management and its underlying human factors assumptions, an approach predicated upon the transfer of presumably universally applicable best practices has often been less successful.

Some MRO providers have fallen into a “universal best-practices trap” as they have failed to appreciate that differences in local operating environments necessitate a locally optimized approach to human factors. Implications of adverse climatic conditions and long commuting times for workforce stress and fatigue are fairly obvious. However, there are other, more subtle environmental factors that global MRO providers need to keep on their radar screens when adapting their human factors approach to different operating environments.

To do justice to the range of different environmental factors that could impact the efficacy of safety management systems in different locations, MRO providers should consider the following Four Environmental RISC Factors (Regional, Infrastructural, Socioeconomic, Cultural):

  • Regional Environment: Where is a particular MRO shop located? What is the prevailing climate (i.e., temperature, humidity, etc.) at that location? What implications does the climate have for workspace design? What implications does it have for realistic workforce fatigue and productivity assumptions?
  • Infrastructural Environment: What is the condition of the infrastructure on which your workforce relies to commute to and from work? Considering the state of infrastructure, what are realistic commuting times? How predictable are commuting times for your employees? What implications do long commuting times have for fatigue management and shift-schedule design? 
  • Socioeconomic Environment: What are typical standards of living for your local workforce? How widespread is ownership of personal vehicles? Are fatigue and stress due to long commutes exacerbated by lack of reliable and comfortable (i.e., air-conditioned) public transport? Are typical living circumstances of your workforce (type of housing, family size, etc.) such that post-night-shift rest and regeneration during the daytime are at all realistic? What would be the implications for your operating model and shift schedules?
  • Cultural Environment: What are the defining characteristics of the national culture in which your local MRO shop is embedded? Would a local employee feel comfortable speaking up and reporting a maintenance error? Would a local employee push back against her/his superior? What would be your strategy to elicit candid feedback from your local workforce? What implications does the local culture have for models of good leadership and effective communication?

Global MRO providers ignore the Four Environmental RISC Factors at their own peril when optimizing their human factors approach for different operating environments. Keeping the Four Environmental RISC Factors on one’s radar screen becomes even more important considering that a significant share of future MRO industry growth is forecast to occur in operating environments that arguably are very different from the home bases of most global MRO industry leaders.

To paraphrase Mark Twain: “To a man with a rivet gun, everything looks like one type of fastener.” 

Global MRO providers would do well to beware of the “universal best-practices trap” and to adapt the human factors approach at the heart of their safety management systems to different operating environments. 

Marc Szepan is a lecturer at the University of Oxford Said Business School. The views expressed are not necessarily shared by Aviation Week.


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