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

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In this, the third installment of our six part series, we look at the role of Organization in business and examine, through the lens of lessons learned, an example of organization from the field of aviation and how it can improve 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 Communication and how the development of the Checklist helped to collect and share knowledge to improve safety and quality as they relate to aircraft operation. We discovered how the checklist is an avenue for sharing improved methods and is tangible evidence of management’s commitment to communication.

Organization is important for business because without it, the best efforts to serve customers fall into disarray. Being organized takes many forms, from the creation and implementation of systems to support processes and the design of processes to support teams and their work. Teams, in particular, benefit from careful analysis and dedicated organization efforts in order to obtain desired outcomes. The organization of teams is vitally important, especially how team members are set up for success in terms of skill levels, work design, collaboration and expected results.

The value of teamwork is well known, and there is a vast literature base about the phenomena of teams and teamwork. Few, if any, companies succeed if leaders neglect team dynamics. Team success relies on those assumptions and underlying choices made within the business about what teams are and how they operate. Without accurate observations of the environment and clarity of intended outcomes, teams will fail to develop communication skills and the knowledge critical to their success.

Harvard Professor Richard Hackman provided great insights into the nature of teams, team organization and how leaders support teamwork. He spent over 30 years studying organizations in general, and teams in particular. His observations included research about how teams fail and what factors affect their success. One of his most profound insights involved how aircrews function in different aviation related operational environments. Hackman suggested that the attributes of effective teamwork have to do with membership, direction, structures, support and coaching. In particular, the intended direction and results expected of the team impact their success. Delivering on organizational promises – a key component of a team’s existence – help us understand how best to organize teams.

Hackman’s Five Conditions for Effective Teams:
1: Teams must be real: People have to know who is on the team and who is not.
2: Teams need a compelling direction: Members need to know and agree on their goals.
3: Teams need enabling structures: Teams avoid problems when tasks, membership and conduct are intentional.
4: Teams need a supportive organization: Organizational systems must facilitate teamwork and enable teams.
5: Teams need expert coaching: Teams need skills that transcend their contribution as individuals.

Let’s look at an example from aviation where team organization and leadership choices impact performance. On the surface, the difference between commercial airline crews and military bomber crews may seem minimal. After all, they both work within complex organizations using large multi-engine aircraft to deliver results over expansive geographic areas. The aircrew’s individual skill levels are documented and maintained through standardized training; destinations are identified and flight plans submitted; aircraft are operated and maintained; the list of similarities are extensive. However, there are key differences in the operational environment, intended outcomes and the reasons behind those outcomes. A review of the accompanying table outlines operational attributes and the underlying assumptions that affect aircrew organization.

Commercial airline crews, according to Hackman, operate as part of larger organization whose mission is the timely movement of people to specific destinations. It is self-evident that the ends sought are the efficient and safe utilization of aircraft on scheduled predetermined routes to deliver a profit. Hackman’s research indicated that an airline crew could expect to work together once every 5.6 years. Airline crew staffing models by design place individual contributors in predetermined slots to accomplish intended results. The primary unit in commercial airline crews is the individual crewmember differentiated by skill, experience and expertise related to the aircraft used.

Bomber crews operate differently. While crewmembers have individual skills, the primary unit is the team. The end sought is for the crew to use their aircraft effectively to deliver a payload on target. The individual aircraft utilized, as well as the target, may vary but the crew and teamwork remain at the center of the mission. Bomber crews exist and train as teams: missions are developed, briefed and executed through the lens of team execution. This is very different from a model based upon systematic scheduling of individuals to meet predetermined operational needs.

As it turns out, aircrews and how they are organized and managed vary greatly based upon the organizational intent and required results. For airline crews, team membership is a result of system needs, team direction is predictable, structures are rigid, support focuses on safely accommodating schedules and team coaching is limited. For bomber crews, team membership is the result of trust relationships and team direction centers on mission accomplishment. Organizational structures and support focus upon mission flexibility, and aircrew coaching is integral to operations. One approach to aircrew organization is not necessarily ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than the other; they are simply the result of choices made in order to accomplish organizational intent.

The Lesson for Managers: The organizational order that results from team design differs based upon how results are to be delivered. As managers, when looking at our teams we need to start at the end. With intended results clearly defined, we can work backwards and organize people into teams and structure processes and systems to support the desired outcome. For example, if the most important aspect of a team member is the skill set they bring to work as an individual contributor (as opposed to their ability to communicate and work with others) the manner in which work is organized is impacted. Just as an airline may view crewmembers as individual contributors within a larger system, you may need to approach teams with skills and results in mind versus the more holistic team centered approach found with military aircraft crews. Organizational order evolves from intended outcomes. Order in a business is the result of organizing to achieve intended outcomes in the Southern Oregon Business Journal 10 context of a specific operational environment. Your teams, their membership, goals, coaching and the structures they operate within are the result of choices made about ends sought and how performance is measured.

Commercial Airliner crew vs. Military Bomber crew

Attribute:Commercial Airline CrewMilitary Bomber Crew
Team Members:Singular units in a systemPart of a team in a system
Focus of Teamwork:Means to an end End in itself
Management Focus:System OperationTeam Utilization
Equipment Utilization:End in itselfMeans to an end
Intended Result:Efficient use of resources Effective use of resources
Performance Measure:Return-On-Investment (ROI)Payload on Target

Further reading: “Why Teams DON’T Work”, Interview with J. Richard Hackman, Harvard Business Review May 2009 Naval War College Review: Rochlin, et al., The Self-Designing High-Reliability Organization: Aircraft Carrier Flight Operations at Sea ( © 2018 Praxis Analytics, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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