Workload Management

This is the Ninth in a series of posts that will provide an improvement strategy that covers the entire family of 9 Automation Airmanship® principles.

There’s been a lot written lately about the rapid turnover of the workforce throughout the entire global aviation industry—not a week goes by without some major trade publication making the observation, and claiming to understand the solution to the increasingly dire “global pilot shortage.” Over the past few years, I’ve encountered it in every area of the profession; and on a very personal level, I’ve also had the privilege to administer the final checking event for some retiring airline Captains. It’s an emotional occasion—think of it—the last opportunity to showcase one’s airmanship, to be measured against one’s peers, company and FAA standards, and to “sweat out” another evaluation. I have to admit, it’s one of my favorite training opportunities. Here’s why: ;

Sometimes, sitting alongside the retiring pilot is one of the airline’s most recent hires—a new First Officer who was likely not even born when the soon-to-be retired Captain was first honing his or her skills in a much different aviation environment than today’s. It occurred to me a few years ago, when this trend was gaining real momentum, that this last checkride at the airline would be a great opportunity to gather some observations from the industry’s most senior and experienced flyers, right there alongside a pilot whose career is just beginning. As it turns out, I’ve had the benefit of learning a lot myself, too.

I have tried to keep about 10 or 15 minutes in the debrief for an important question, whenever I’m presented with a Captain who’s just completed his or her final checkride in an airline operation:

“What has been the biggest factor for you in putting up tens of thousands of hours of safe flying over your career?”

—or something to that effect. By far the most common answer, paraphrased from the dozens I’ve heard, is this: “Always follow the checklist—check and double-check your actions and those of your crew—speak up anytime you think something is not right—and never rush.” Seems like pretty obvious advice, but each of these beliefs likely has a story or two behind it.

Technically, you could say that these results are anecdotal—and you’d be absolutely correct (it sure would be interesting to have every retiring Captain provide this kind of wisdom formally, as they leave “flying the line” behind). And of course, it’s not always delivered in just the same words.

Most recently, the version of “never rush” that I heard from one venerable retiring Captain was, “slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.” I remember hearing a Gunner’s Mate say this on the practice range fresh out of college and recently commissioned in the U. S. Coast Guard. Then, I was learning my way around small arms during training as a Coast Guard Boarding Officer. I also remember those words coming back to me after failing a judgemental training round, when I mistook a range target of an old lady pushing a shopping cart for a menacing gang member (needless to say, I blew that little old lady away; thank good remedial training and the words of a wise old Gunner’s Mate for that lesson). Three decades later, it has a much deeper meaning than it originally did—I’ve applied it through many other high-risk, high-reliability activities, especially on the flight deck. Just the same, I wrote the words down during this particular debriefing, and later on that day, feeling intrigued by its usefulness yet again, found myself looking for its origins.

The time I spent researching this phrase led me to a few other sayings that have similar meanings, and I wrote those down, too. These others appear to be clearly attributable to somebody specific, but the smooth is fast phrase seems to be claimed by many, mostly related to the high-stakes world of military marksmanship, specifically, organizations like special operations units (think SEALS and Delta Force). The 2007 Mark Wahlberg movie, Shooter, seemed to popularize the phrase in contemporary culture, so it appears here to stay, and that may be a good thing for new members of any high-risk, high-reliability profession. It’s both catchy and full of truth, and coming from the most experienced among us, it can be better than gold in terms of career value.

In case you wanted to broaden your appreciation for this concept, here are a few more related quotes that promote the same approach to workload management in real world of the 21st Century:

Fast is fine, but accuracy is everything. In a gun fight…you need to take your time in a hurry. —Wyatt Earp

Probably not the best words to convey this concept to very young and inexperienced learners, but the words, “…take your time in a hurry” sure make a lot of sense to me.

Festina Lente: Make Haste Slowly. —the Roman Emperor Augustus

The Roman Emperor Augustus thought so much of these words that he had it enshrined in his own official motto, of which there have been hundreds of variations and copycats through the ages (you can get lost in the labyrinth that researching this phrase leads you into).

What does this discussion mean for those of us who just want to improve our workload management, whether on the flight deck or in any other domain that has both time pressure and accuracy as major factors? Considering where the advice has come from, I think it means we first take a look at which operations in our environments contain the most risk for rushing, and then make those areas the target of our best and most careful, focused performance.


Think about it.

Until our next post, fly safe, and always, fly first.

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