The Science and Art of Monitoring

Sometimes it’s hard to believe that the seemingly simplest flight deck duties are in fact the hardest to grasp, remaining elusive for decades in spite of the intense analysis that our industry constantly undergoes. Even the most up-to-the-minute aviation safety news of our time will report that poor monitoring weighed heavily in findings of “pilot error.”

For decades, even though aviators knew what good flight deck leadership and management of the cockpit and crew looked like, it would take almost ten years of research and self-examination for the industry to adopt the discipline of Crew Resource Management in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. In the same way, although we know what good Automation Airmanship looks like when we see it, we are now engaged in a similar effort to bring the best behaviors into full view – with full understanding – so we can raise the performance of all aviators to the highest levels possible. We discuss this in Chapter 8 of Automation Airmanship – given over entirely to describing and developing one of the most important principles of contemporary aviation: Monitoring.

To understand Monitoring, we insist that one must understand an underlying mode of thought, attention. Since we published our book in 2013, we have continued to find others suggesting similar points of view, some which preceded our observations but also some that followed. One of the most vaunted and read scientists in the field, Daniel Goleman, recently described attention in a headline piece written for the Harvard Business Review. Goleman points out that, “A Primary task of leadership is to direct attention. To do so, leaders must learn to focus their own attention. When we speak about being focused, we commonly mean thinking about one thing while filtering out distractions.” Substitute “Airmanship” for “Leadership” and “aviators” for “leaders” and you have a statement that sums up one of the biggest challenges on the contemporary flight deck: Monitoring.

Both experienced and novice crews of contemporary aircraft are quick to admit that effective flight deck management means making sense of and properly prioritizing the ever-increasing amount of information (of all kinds) available through modern digital technology. On the subject of this increased volume of information, Goleman goes on to cite a Nobel Prize winning economist, Herbert Simon, who in 1971 wrote prophetically that, “Information consumes the attention of its recipients, hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” A preponderance of past and present accident analysis, sadly, provides a wealth of evidence to support Simon’s convictions.

We have advocated the use of Michael Posner’s “Spotlight” model of attention; Goleman more recently describes something similar, the “camera lens” viewpoint that suggests that “just as a camera lens can be set narrowly on a single point or more widely to take in a panoramic view, you can focus tightly or expansively.” Both models rely on the same cognitive function to create a pattern of awareness that is all at once durable, repeatable, reliable, and flexible. Breaking down Monitoring into its inarguable cognitive components will set the stage for individuals and organizations struggling to adopt the safest and most effective cockpit strategies possible. We hope that you are inspired by your professional thirst for knowledge to investigate – and put into practice – the model that works best for you.

Until our next post, fly safe and fly first.

*References: The Focused Leader: How effective executives direct their own—and their organizations’—attention. By Daniel Goleman, co-director of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations at Rutgers University. As published in the December, 2013 Harvard Business Review.

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