Lessons from the Airline Industry: Overcoming Production Pressure
By Eric Michrowski and Emily Wood
We often communicate to employees through trainings, weekly email updates and with posters plastering the walls, that safety must always be our number one priority. But, when our words and actions during times of high pressure emphasize production and on-time performance, the message surrounding safety is lost. It must be acknowledged that production pressure, much like the stress of completing work on time within an office, is inevitable within any industry and cannot be eliminated. However, achieving a balance between production pressure and safety by establishing standard procedures that build a resilient workforce and capture mistakes within an organization, will help employees safely operate in work environments that are not always optimal. Learning to balance the pressure of on-time performance with safety, the airline industry offers great insight into how this balance can successfully be implemented within a high-risk industry.
On-time performance (also referred to as OTP) is crucial to an airline’s success. OTP is used as a ranking factor between airlines and delays often turn-off passengers and lower ticket sales. In a 2017 study, researchers found that “increases in air travel delay at airports negatively impacted the likelihood of repeated consumer selection”. The intense pressure to meet on-time performance goals can lead to human errors. In fact, “pressure” is listed as one of the “Dirty Dozen”, a list of the twelve most common precursors to human error that result in aviation accidents and incidents.
Airlines work to ensure every employee understands the potentially catastrophic consequences of their action if they do not perform to standard or if they do not speak up when they believe something is unsafe. From the moment new employees go through on-boarding, they are taught that safety is the number one priority. There is an awareness that an employees’ action or inaction, or decision to speak up instead of remaining silent, can be the determining factor of whether an aircraft makes it safely to its destination. Policies and procedures emphasize every employee has a voice when it comes to safety and anyone, no matter their role within the organization can say “stop” without fear of punishment if they believe something is unsafe. While everyone understands the need to perform quickly to meet the flight schedule and better their company’s financial position, they also know that an aircraft incident or accident would impact customers, employees and the airline for years to come.
When production is placed above safety, it leads to devastating consequences.
The worst aviation disaster of all time was the 1977 Pan Am/KLM crash in Tenerife, Spain, which resulted in 583 fatalities. The post-crash investigation cited the decision of the KLM Captain, to take-off without clearance as one of the major contributing factors to the accident. It was reported the flight crew felt pressured to leave as soon as possible in order to comply with KLM’s strict duty-time regulations. The performance of the flight crew was degraded by the need to hurry and rush tasks so they could take-off, setting the foundation for the preventable catastrophe to occur.
Years later, on a cold winter’s day in 1989, an Air Ontario plane stopped in Dryden, Ontario to refuel before taking off for Winnipeg, Manitoba. Less than a minute after take-off, the plane crashed into the trees, triggering an explosion and resulting in 21 fatalities. The final report highlighted the competitive pressures overshadowed the safety procedures and led to the flight crew’s decision to overlook safety and take-off without adequate de-icing. The choice of the flight crew in this case was to either ground the aircraft until de-icing was possible and deal with the “wrath of Air Ontario” for the decision to cancel the flight or try to take-off. The decision to take-off was made.
To ensure flights remain on time, every step of every process is documented down to the minute. While these standardized process help achieve on-time performance goals, they have a more important role. They help ensure any mistakes made are caught and do not lead to a preventable catastrophe. As was illustrated by both accidents, rushing through steps without understanding why each step must be completed and failing to follow outlined procedures can, and has, led to devastating outcomes.
The impact of production pressure on human performance is often referred to as “Hurry-Up Syndrome”. Oftentimes, production pressure is not the sole cause of an incident or accident, but an underlying causal factor that “sets the stage” for an accident to occur. A balance must be achieved between production pressure and safety. If not, unnecessary risk will be undertaken by employees.
While production pressure has led to aviation accidents, many airlines are regarded as leading organizations in the field of safety. Following a series of preventable accidents in the 1980s and 1990s, a shift in thinking slowly began to emerge, not only within airlines, but across the whole aviation industry. Together airlines, air traffic control and aircraft manufacturers began to implement voluntary safety reporting programs, where they could share safety information with one another and regulatory bodies without fear of punishment. By the end of the 2000’s the aviation accident rate had decreased by more than 80 percent. Trust among all parties grew and employees within the aviation industry realized their active participation in voluntary reporting could be the difference between the safe arrival of an aircraft or its ultimate demise. Employees at all levels of aviation organizations began to speak up when they perceived a hazard and began to divulge their mistakes so their colleagues would not make the same errors. By recognizing cooperation instead of competition, the projected increase in commercial air crashes to one commercial aviation accident a week by the end of 2020 has surpassed expectations and dramatically decreased. Small, voluntary and ongoing safety improvements have allowed for airlines to ensure both safety and on-time performance goals are continually achieved.
To sum things up
The key to achieving a balance between safety and production pressure is to ensure all communication and all actions show the organization’s ongoing commitment to safety, even when raising safety concerns will result in a financial loss. Having standardized procedures that state safety is every employee’s responsibility is not enough. In-depth processes can help trap errors, but employees need to feel supported and understand they are responsible to speak up when they see a safety concern and have the appropriate channels to report concerns without fear of punishment. To raise or not raise a safety concern must never be a debate.