Flying Lessons: How stories from Aviation can make us better Managers

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In this, the second installment of our six part series, we look at the role of communication in business and examine, through the lens of lessons learned, an example of communication from the field of aviation and how it can improved enterprise performance.

The picture of Boeing’s iconic 737 airliners above represents a culmination of aviation lessons for business managers. In microcosm, the 737 is the result of five activities all organizations must do to be viable. Boeing observed their environment and communicated, organized and delivered a product that it has improved over time. The ability to Observe, Communicate, Organize, Deliver and Improve are critical to business success. Moreover, the business that does these five activities well moves beyond mere viability towards enterprise excellence. Last month we discussed Observation and how using mathematician Abraham Wald’s methods for analysis of aircraft battle damage can improve management decision making by focusing on observational accuracy.

Communication is important for a business because it allows for the collection, transfer and value added application of data and information. We can think of knowledge as a natural extension of data (raw facts, figures, observations) and information (relevant data organized, and accessible, in a useful manner). Data is important because it provides the raw material used in creating information. Information is valuable because it is data organized and accessible with the potential to be useful. If we think of this as a natural hierarchy, Data lies at the base, in huge quantities, Information is next and at the top is Knowledge (See the diagram Knowledge Hierarchy). The intent of Communication is the creation and/or exchange of knowledge between people, be they team members, customers, suppliers, partners or other stakeholders. Knowledge is the awareness, understanding or benefit obtained by sharing information. Let’s look at how a lesson from aviation provides a tool to create knowledge via the capture and sharing of information.

From humble beginnings with the Wright 1903 Flyer airplane first flown at Kitty Hawk North Carolina, aviation grew quickly. Aviation harnessed all the advances found in motive power, materials science and aerodynamics. These advances were at times substantial successes and at other times miserable failures. With each step forward, new challenges arose. A big challenge was the communication about, and the complexity of, aircraft as they advanced, grew larger and more intricate.

Fast-forward from 1903 to 1935 and there are vast improvements in aircraft. By 1935, advanced aircraft had enclosed cockpits, possessed multiple engines and had hydraulic controls and aluminum structures. These replaced single engines, manual controls and wood and fabric aircraft construction of the prior era. In development since 1930, Boeing had just delivered the Model 299, a four-engine bomber destined to become the famous B-17 bomber, to the US Army Air Corps for evaluation. Unfortunately, even with the best of crews, tragedy struck. The prototype Model 299 crashed on take-off killing both pilots and injuring crew in the fire that followed.

After the crash, an investigation ensued. The investigating team found a controls required to make a successful transition to flight at takeoff was inadvertently locked in place, resulting in the crash. Traditionally, aircraft pilots trained in operational basics and moved on to refine their skills through practice. Each pilot developed their own methods to address the multitude of activities required to safely take-off, fly and land a particular aircraft. In this case, the conclusion was that the Model 299 was so complicated it exceeded the capabilities of even the best Army pilots. The solution was to develop and implement a standardized list of actions, in their proper sequence, to aid pilots in operating increasingly complicated aircraft. The Checklist was born (see B-17 Cockpit Checklist below). Checklists standardize routine tasks, improve the precision of activities and lower the amount of time and attention required to accomplish them.

Today, Checklists are ubiquitous. In fact, they are everywhere where people’s activities benefit from standardization. Eventually, checklists covered all aspects of aircraft operation to include take-off, landing, fueling, maintenance, and even emergency procedures in case of system failure. Beyond aviation, Checklists have been found useful in such diverse applications as medical procedures and litigation. While some would say that checklists simplify operations, and to some extent that is true, but upon observation other benefits become clear. If communication is left to word of mouth, or individualized instruction, tasks become ‘customized’ based upon the myriad of choices people make along the way. Checklists provide organizational value on multiple levels:

First, they improve operational safety by codifying standardized activities and therefor prevent overlooking routine activities.

Second, they improve quality by providing consistent adherence to explicit standards when completing individual tasks as well as when the same tasks are completed at different times.

However, Checklists offer the most value as a depository of human experience. Checklists allow organizations to capture and share knowledge that might otherwise be lost. As we saw with the Model 299, even experts can become overloaded and unintentionally overlook the obvious – even when to do so jeopardizes their success, and safety. When dealing with complicated tasks, careful study of successful activities in your business and their documentation evolve into organizational best practice. When codified into Checklists, they ensure that best practice is widely disseminated. As a result, routine activities are consistently executed. As improvements evolve, updated Checklists capture, codify and share improvement throughout the organization.

The Lesson for Managers:
The intended outcome of communication is knowledge. Knowledge being the awareness, understanding or benefit we obtain by sharing information. In the tragic case of the Model 299, even the most talented individuals can overlook the routine while fixated on more pressing issues. The Checklist, as both an instrument of consistency, depository of best practice, and precursor for safe operation reduces the intellectual load associated with complicated tasks. This sets people up for success by lowering the immediate demands associated with routine tasks and allowing them focus on urgent needs. Why is this important? First, skilled and capable team members a valuable commodity. Any distraction preventing their full engagement in unpredictable variation lowers their ability to react. Second, the knowledge held by those same skilled and knowledgeable people is valuable and needs to be shared. The Checklist, by prioritizing known tasks and predictable outcomes multiplies the knowledge held by capable people by creating common knowledge. Finally, the Checklist is tangible evidence that managers are committed to effective communication. Understanding and applying the knowledge hierarchy model with Data at the bottom, Information in the middle and Knowledge at the top, we can apply the Checklist to support continuous improvement and effective communication in our business.

Further Reading:
1. New Yorker Magazine: Gawande, The Checklist (
2. From the Ashes of the Model 299 ( 1 © 2018 Praxis Analytics, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Jim Myers is the principal and founder of Praxis Analytics, Incorporated. Jim serves as a trusted adviser to business leaders in their quest to operate efficiently, improve continuously and prosper. His background includes two decades working in manufacturing, supply chain, customer service and maintenance management roles within markets that range from capital equipment to aerospace and defense. Jim balanced his practical operations experience with theory and served as the Associate Dean of the Atkinson Graduate School of Management (AGSM) at Willamette University where he led projects to improve school operations and taught graduate courses in Operations and Information Management, Strategy Alignment and Project Management.
Jim can be reached at | Praxis Analytics web site:

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