SAE - Airline Maintenance Resource Management: Improving Communication

Organization: SAE
Publication Date: 25 September 1998
Page Count: 230


The Critical Nature of Communication

In 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright completed the first successful powered flight. Although their preparations seemed complex at the time, by our standards they were very simple. When the brothers designed, flew, and repaired their own airplane, they didn't worry much about communication breakdowns, because they were involved in every operation. Over the next 95 years, as advances in technology changed every aspect of aviation, little attention was paid to an important element of safety-communication in the workplace.

In 1988, the industry got a wake-up call from a fatal accident involving a Boeing 737 near Maui, Hawaii. One crew member died, and a number of passengers were injured when the skin on the aircraft peeled back in flight. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) attributed the accident to the management of the entire maintenance system, rather than to individual error [Ref. 1]. Although maintenance issues had come up before, this accident marked the first time the NTSB laid the blame squarely at management's door. After the NTSB's report on the Maui accident, it began to dawn on the aviation community that communication is an industrywide problem. Even so, communication and coordination issues have only recently been considered as important as technological advances.

By definition, management is responsible for the communication and coordination systems of their organization. However, after airline deregulation in 1978, management's focus shifted to mergers and cost reduction issues. Employee needs and organizational structures were of secondary importance. Competition pressured airlines to pursue productivity improvements aggressively, to minimize "nonessential" maintenance activity, and to reduce costs, even as they expanded operations. As technology and economics governed airline operations from 1978 into the mid-1990s, aviation accidents continued at a nearly constant rate.

In 1996, aviation accidents worldwide accounted for over 1300 passenger fatalities, nearly twice the annual average of the previous five years [Ref. 2]. Today, it is estimated that air traffic will double in the next decade. So, just maintaining the current annual number of accidents requires that today's accident rate (1.5 accidents per million flights) be cut in half. With the enviable historical safety record of commercial aviation, such a reduction is a daunting challenge. However, accident studies indicate that improvements in communication can reduce this accident rate.

Because human interactions are so vital to safe aircraft operation and these practices need to be improved, we analyze numerous actual events for shortcomings in communication and coordination activities. Additionally, we offer recommendations aimed at correcting these problems.

Why haven't these problems been solved? We could argue that getting people to communicate better, to consider other employees as part of the work system, and to pay attention to the hazards lurking in complex work environments should not be as difficult as designing and developing aircraft. But, although the solutions seem logical, the transformations required aren't easy for management to swallow. The desired holistic approach requires that management and organizational cultures change, sometimes dramatically. Unfortunately, "change" encounters resistance from employees at all levels. Our comfort zones must be expanded; to do this, we must break down social distances and involve all employees. To many aviation maintenance personnel, such a transformation is equivalent to changing their identity.

A desirable trait in the past, individualism can be a problem in the current safety environment. Those involved in aviation safety must learn to work as teams, and they must reform their linear communication style. This is an especially difficult barrier for maintenance employees. With their engineering focus, maintenance managers and technicians possess highly technical skills, but sometimes lack the communication skills necessary to ensure safety in today's complex operations.

What is needed is a better balance of technical skills and social skills. Workplace communication must be improved if the job is to be done right.

Supervisors, leads, and staff must continually strive for excellence in communication. Furthermore, new programs must be designed to accommodate worker needs and play to their strengths.

Fortunately, airlines realize that a fix exists for maintenance communication problems. They are addressing this problem through more effective sharing of information among all employees. This "bottom-up" technique is called Maintenance Resource Management (MRM). Addressing the growing crisis in communication, MRM is evolving quickly. During the short history of its implementation in North America, there are already several success stories. This book outlines recent triumphs and failures of the successful migration from antiquated communication to ground-breaking, employee-motivated teamwork. Practical recommendations for further improving workplace communication are also included.

Following the MRM programs enables maintenance employees to take on new responsibilities, and it makes their jobs easier, not harder. Resistance to change is fading away as employees see tangible benefits. Companies involved in developing new programs are cooperating with their competitors to learn how these programs can benefit the entire industry. Indeed, intra-industry cooperation inspired this book.

Our goal is to help aviation maintenance employees meet their ongoing and unchanging mission: Keep airplanes safely in the air. We know that better communication saves lives, improves on-time performance, and enhances cost management programs. The days of the Wright brothers and the cult of the individual are fading; only fully cooperative teams can accomplish this crucial mission. We need effective, strong workplace communication at every level.