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Linking Standards to Organizational Culture

by on November 24, 2013

Ok, so it was June since our last post. Time to start sharing again. Like everyone else around us, we’ve been busy. Working with clients, raising little people, starting a new non-profit foundation with our Leadership Calgary colleagues and attempting to enjoy our short summer, which seems to now be a distant memory.

Jumping right to it, as we’ve stated before, there is much to be learned from aviation and its non-stop work in safety and regulation. The aviation industry has worked decades to understand what standards and behaviors are needed for safe operations and how to incent these behaviors through a transparent and learning culture. A client of ours passed this article on to us a while back and we’ve been meaning to share it. It came from one of our management of change (MOC) team members and we’re super impressed that they were paying attention to this and linking the work they do in oil and gas to aviation standards. Our client realizes that the standards and processes they put in place have an impact on how people do their work and ultimately impact the overall organizational culture. Incenting the correct and needed behaviors is a priority in safety critical positions, protecting people and the environment.

The article looks at three recent US air crashes, linking them to ‘go-arounds’  – when pilots abort a landing and try again, research sponsored by the Flight Safety Foundation. It’s quite well known that takeoff and landing are the two most high-risk activities during air travel. There is an incredible amount of discipline and regulation in place to ensure that these two major activities are done near perfect each and every time. Pilots make mistakes though. Why would they make mistakes if there is so much rigor put into these activities, in specific, mistakes in when to go-around?

Quoting Rudy Quevedo, the director of global programs at the Flight Safety Foundation, in regard to go-arounds, “In some cases, rules may be overly rigid, akin to imposing a highway speed limit that is so low drivers routinely exceed it. Violating the rules has become so ingrained that airlines don’t enforce them and pilots don’t recognize when they are taking unnecessary risks.”

Standards can incent the right or wrong behaviors and without measures and feedback loops in place, wrong behaviors may go unnoticed, and in the case of air travel put many lives at risk. Thankfully organizations like the FAA, the Transportation Safety Board and the Flight Safety Foundation are in place and pay attention to patterns, looking for opportunities for improvement. As we pointed out in our last post, these organizations foster an open and transparent safety culture. Lessons from incidents are shared not only within the impacted airline, but also across the industry. Safety outweighs the need for competitive advantage because unsafe operations in some airlines would have an overall negative impact on the industry.

A ‘continuous improvement mindset’ or ‘beyond compliance’ are key phrases heard in the halls of organizations these days. What do these really mean? It means that there is an honest attempt to go beyond creating and following shared processes and standards, but to create a culture that is open to critical examination of how things get done (culture) and to incent people, not reprimand them, to find the faults and opportunities for improvement – and have the processes and attitude in place to adjust.

The article is not blaming pilots alone for the error in judgment, but is pointing to the accuracy and applicability of the standard. The FAA, the Transportation Safety Board and the Flight Safety Foundation work to understand human behavior and how pilots come to make the judgments they make, in other words, what information, experience and other dynamics the pilots are drawing on in order to make these types of decisions. The article demonstrates how the safety organizations go about investigating until the problem is within an acceptable risk level. Their goal is to come as close to eliminating the error as they can.

“We should expect that if we have a policy, the people should follow the policy. But that being said, we need to make sure that the policy is good before we make people follow it. I don’t think we’re there yet.” [Rudy Quevedo on go-arounds. Emphasis is ours]

We’ll continue to examine standards and their place in business and culture. Two resources that we highly recommend in regards to this topic are:

The Death of Common Sense: How Law is Suffocating America, by Phillip Howard

Standards: Recipes for Reality, by Lawrence Busch

And for more information on go-arounds, visit SKYbrary – Go-around Decision Making

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