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Learning From Failure

July 22, 2011

By Michael Tatham, President, The Tatham Group.The most fearful event in civil aviation is a mid-air collision. Whether involving a helicopter and small plane  or commercial jets (http://youtu.be/2pKe93ckmXI, they are dramatic and horrifying.) They occur very infrequently, but when they do the Civil Aviation Authority is all over it like CSI on a murder.   The investigation doesn’t look for a single smoking gun, rather to uncover the chain of events that culminated in the accident.

Once the investigation has concluded the entire process continues with a prevention campaign to systematically improve safety  practices and inform all pilots. The opportunity to learn from someone else’s painful experience is priceless.  The tagline on the Aviation Safety Letter sent out to all civil aviation pilots reads:

‘Learn from the mistakes of others;

                    you’ll not live long enough to make them all yourself…’

There are dramatic, infrequent events in business as well, like the US mortgage market collapse.  But there are many smaller failures in business that can teach big lessons.  How well does your organization learn from its failures?  Or does it pretend that there are no mistakes, only things that didn’t go as well as hoped.  Does it pass around the lessons, or try to hurry up and move on?

One way to start the process is to try translating some of the lessons pilots study into .the life of your organization. Here are two from the July-August 2009 Issue of Flight Safety Australia along with some suggestions of how they can apply to your life piloting your organization.

1. Know what is going on around you;

High cockpit workload is the highest contributing factor to pilot’s losing situational awareness.  So much is going on they forget to look out the window. Compare and contrast this to a business operator or line manager that is becomes narrowly focused on the day-to-day ‘busy work’ that occurs.  The aviation term for this is ‘having your head buried in the cockpit’.

  • Think about your respective role and responsibilities in your organization and ask yourself what is increasing your ‘cockpit’ workload?     
  • Is what you are working towards adding value to your end customer or are you headed for a collision? 
  • Is your daily activity part of your flight plan—your strategic goals?

2. Predict what could happen.

Complacency is the easiest way to get killed in aviation.  The term “same way same day” explains this perfectly.  When arriving at work in the morning after cleaning up a huge mess the day before do you as a leader put any emphasis on examining the errors that occurred?  Or are you just moving on to the next issue that creates the most noise?  There will always be a chain of events that can help you better understand ‘what went wrong’ and help with future predictions.

Prepare and plan your day.

Prioritize your tasks and remain alert to activities going on outside your domain that may impact your day plan.