Clear Skies Ahead: What smart organizations can learn from airlines
A few years ago, I had the rare privilege of attending a routine but exceptional meeting in an office at a major U.S. passenger airline. It featured representatives of the Federal Aviation Administration, the pilots’ union and senior management of the airline.
The focus of the meeting was to review the most recent safety incident reports from line operations to see if there were any trends emerging or underlying issues that needed to be addressed to maintain and improve the airline’s sterling flying record.
While the meeting was just one component of the airline’s overall safety program, it illuminated what stood at the core of the airline’s safety program: A commitment to build and nurture a healthy safety culture.
Remember, airline operations in countries like the United States are the safest form of travel in human history. That record is – excuse the phrase – no accident. It took decades of hard-earned experience to figure out how to fly tens of thousands of planes millions of miles each year without major mishap.
One of the key advances in airline operations learned along the way was the need to build a culture that values safety at all levels, at all times. The healthy safety cultures I observed while communicating on behalf of union pilots embraced three general concepts:
- Healthy safety cultures invite everyone in, encouraging everyone at all levels of the organization to take an active part in monitoring the system – without regard to job title or span of responsibility. This means that any employee or contractor is encouraged to report any and all concerns at all times, without threat of discipline or coercion if that report might, for example, delay a departure by 10 minutes to check out a slight dent on the landing gear housing.
- These cultures are proactive. The idea here is to spot worrying trends before they affect operations and find ways to reverse course quickly. For example, the best airlines use data analysis to maximum advantage, looking for almost imperceptible movements in operational numbers – well before any human could notice.
- Healthy safety cultures don’t stand still. They are innovative and embrace smart adaptation. What worked before, they seem to say, is no longer good enough. The airlines I saw close-up encouraged employees to send in suggestions on how to improve operations at every level. By finding a faster and easier way to load freight, for example, a cargo carrier can increase its efficiency and safety record in one fell swoop.
I recalled that long-ago meeting when I saw the recent news stories detailing the National Transportation Safety Board’s finding that the Washington, D.C. Metro system’s safety culture falls short.
As a daily Metro rider, I often wonder if employees are invited to participate in safety at all levels. I wonder if Metro has a commitment to get ahead of the curve on emerging issues, or if they merely react to events once they make the news or leave thousands stranded to look for alternative means to get to work (been there, done that). And I wonder if Metro has fostered a spirit of innovation and adaptation in their workforce – finding small ways to improve every day.
Which leads me to my final point: The healthy safety culture analogy is easily applied to any organization, including yours. I often use it in my communications training and try to support it in teams I lead.
Smart leaders and smart communicators encourage everyone at every level to weigh in on issues, call out minor mistakes and state their point of view – without fear. One sign you are in trouble is the oft-heard, “That’s the way the boss (or client) wants it, so that’s the way we’re gonna do it.” Run for the hills!
The best leaders and communicators use the small glitches they stumble on every day to learn and apply lessons moving forward. They send out short surveys to attendees from their latest event to see what could have gone better, and they work on fixing the minor ankle-biters before they lead to real problems.
The best innovate and encourage creativity. If you are holding the same conference year after year, or issuing “this year’s version of last year’s report,” you may be drifting off to irrelevance, the equivalent of a safety situation of serious proportions. Of course, not every innovation works out, so it’s important to accept some failed experiments along the way.
All was not perfect during that meeting at the airline. While none of the incident reports discussed made me truly nervous, there were several that made me grateful to know that airlines have multiple levels of safety at every step – and that they were working so hard to keep their safety culture in shipshape.
We should all learn from their example.