Making operations fly – what business can learn from pilots

I am still smiling. On my flight from Oslo to Rome this weekend, I was asked to sit in the cockpit. I gladly accepted. My seat ticket read C01 – Cockpit 1. In a fully seated Boeing 737-800, the captain and copilot of SK4713 showed me how to get 194 passengers safely and timely from far north to the south of Europe in about three hours. I could not possibly get a better start on my travel to the annual conference of the European Operations Management Association, this time in Palermo, Sicily. For a scholar of operations, it was truly inspiring to get a first-hand view of how the aviation industry operates. What can other industries learn from aviation? A lot, for sure. Here are five quick reflections from my flight over Europe.

SAS cockpit operations

#1 Use checklists

Aviation is famous for their checklists. In fact it is well known that the checklist was invented by pilots in the 1930s. The objective is to make sure that the standard procedure is followed and technology is working. The captain has already made his visual ground-check of the plane. “The checklists are just for checking” – I learn from the copilot. “We perform all operations as a routine, before we read the checklist”. The copilot reads the few vital bullets on the “before take-off” section of the piece of paper, and the pilot reads them back. Both touch corresponding checkpoints in the cockpit as they read. “We’ve been taught that if we point as we read we maximize attention”. It takes them no more than a minute. Elsewhere in industry, checklists are most often seen as a demeaning, unnecessary and dead-boring activity. Could it be that simple checklists for critical processes could save lives in hospitals and prevent costly breakdowns in manufacturing industry? I think yes.

#2 Always have a Plan B

Checklists or not, things do go wrong… According to the pilots, it happens much more frequently than passengers would like to believe. And when they do—the important thing is to have a Plan B. “We should always have a Plan B”—the captain says, before he quickly adds “…and we do!” The pilots have procedures they follow when technology fails. For example, the pilots of SK4713 pay attention to close by airports and the remaining volume of gasoline as we approach Rome; “Just in case we cannot go down in Rome”. No reason to not feel safe with experienced pilots like these ones from Scandinavian Airlines. Making Plan B’s is a continuous exercise of thinking. It is a very human activity that adds sense to following routines and procedures.

#3 Build redundancies into your system

Plan B’s can also be designed into technology, which is a key characteristic of airplanes. Planes are packed with redundancy systems (backups for systems that fail). A Boeing plane has several layers of redundancy for critical components. Examples of redundancy in airplanes are: three separate petrol tanks, the two dashboards of the captain and copilot both display the same critical information, planes can fly with only one of two engines operating, and pilots are served different food in case of food poisoning. Does your company have any critical processes that could need some redundancy?

#4 Make information visual

The first impression of a cockpit is a tiny control room with hundreds of switches. An untrained eye is quickly lost in screens, lights and information. However, cockpits are in fact carefully designed work places, optimized through a century of experience of how to convey and display information to the human pilots. For example, one screen showing temperature and pressure in the engines is automatically switched off as the airplane takes off; “research has shown that it is easier to spot potential dangers if the screen lights up when there are any deviations from the normal, instead of being constantly on”. Another screen shows the flying route. It is linked with radar showing any other airplanes in the vicinity, and it beeps if it calculates potentially crossing courses. This calls the attention of the pilots, who act according to their standard procedures if needed. Visual communication can be extremely useful if done right. In order to avoid information overload, the trick is to create visual signs for the operations that deviate from the standard or plan. Cockpits are state-of-the-art in that regard.

#5 Have fun at work

A final learning point is to make the best out of any situation. Pilots have stressful jobs with serious responsibilities, which few in land-based industries can match. I was impressed by the professionalism of the pilots, and how they balanced it with being social and having fun at the same time. As soon as the take-off was completed, the auto-pilot was turned on and the pilots totally relaxed. While calming they kept an ear to the radio and eye on the instruments, always ready to act the second something needed attention. Even though they had never flown together before, the pilots worked as an experienced and harmonized team. Just because you are responsible for a Boeing 737-800, it does not mean you cannot have fun at work. One example is the copilot’s funny remark as the food is served; “they advise us not to eat cabbage when flying… and what do they serve us? –Cabbage…”  I think more people should have more fun at work—even as standardization is increasing.

Thank you pilots on SK4713 to Rome! You certainly made my week.

Anything else we can learn from aviation and pilots? Please share your reflections below.

9 thoughts on “Making operations fly – what business can learn from pilots

  1. Very interesting reflections Torbjorn! Must also admit that I’m very jealous that you got to fly like that 🙂 Think that the reflections also are relevant for OM research, and research in general. I started with my check list and Plan B right away, already feels a lot better.

  2. Comment in the LinkedIn Group “Operations Management in Practice”

    Good article and observations made. Yes, your 5 points are already in use in Operations Management. Off course the level of use may vary among different industries and companies with different levels of professionalism.

    – #1 Use checklists – This is a standard requirement. Even Operating procedures are usually done in a checklist format. Layout of action steps is important and it is best to ensure they are clear, concise and correct.
    – #2 Always have a Plan B – Often referred to as Contingency plans. The proper analysis and communication of plan B is just as vital as the plan A.
    – #3 Build redundancies into your system – This is done especially with the safety systems and safety critical equipment (SCE). It becomes compulsory as mitigations when risk assessments tools are used like the “Swiss cheese” or “Bow-tie” models, and implementing actions from analyses such as “HAZOP” and “LOPA”, just to name a few.
    – #4 Make information visual – I agree with this also. Labels and tags can be in words, but are even more effective when pictures and coloured lights are also used. This is particularly useful in dynamic work places where quick decisions and surveillance is required. It takes more time to read and understand a sentence. Off course the meanings of the various visual indicators must be understood and have the same meaning for everyone within the respective work environment.
    – #5 Have fun at work – Laughter is the best universal stress reliever. Needless to say that application and quantity would vary according to the work environment and the workers. Team builders and group activity outside of the working hours also significantly contributes to greater comradery and performance at work.

    – Anything else we can learn from aviation and pilots – Yes, radio communication. Push-To-Talk (PTT) response is faster than telephone dialing which increases the efficiency of communicating among workers of any operation. Operations that are in remote locations definitely will be enhanced by radio communication due to limited telephone or cellular phone communication

    • Atul Gawande expands his New Yorker article in his book The Checklist Manifesto. I recommend it. There is an entire chapter on the use of checklists and the history of checklists within aviation. Much of it is applicable to process excellence.

  3. Dear Filip, very interesting article. one point I should add is : training.
    I think pilots have more training (simulator) than any other profession.

    Best regards!

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