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Friday, February 25, 2011

Who Am I ?

I am always amazed at the process when I watch an episode of "Antiques Roadshow" on PBS.  People bring in their keepsakes to be appraised.  They are asking someone else to tell them what THEIR possession is worth.  This appraisal, of course, is based on the value someone else places on his or her item.  Another way of stating this is “For what price are you willing to hand over the object?” 

Can someone else establish the value of our self worth or identity?

What should we use to put a value on who we are?

Can our self-worth or our identity be sold?

George Bailey, the character immortalized by Jimmy Stewart, faced those same questions in Frank Capra’s film  classic, “It’s A Wonderful Life”.   George spends a night of drinking and acting out before he decides to throw himself off the town bridge into an ice filled river.  Apprentice Angel Clarence materializes to challenge George’s decision to end his life.   George laments that he was ever born.   Clarence provides George a possible alternative ending to his story.

GEORGE: Why am I seeing all these strange things?
CLARENCE: Don't you understand, George? It's because you were not born.
GEORGE: Then if I wasn't born, who am I?
CLARENCE: You're nobody. You have no identity.
George rapidly searches his pockets for identification, but without success.
GEORGE: What do you mean, no identity? My name's George Bailey.
CLARENCE: There is no George Bailey. You have no papers, no cards, no driver's license, no 4-F card, no insurance policy . . . .
You've been given a great gift, George. A chance to see what the world would be like without you.

All normally cognitive humans posses that same gift, to ask and answer the questions, “Who am I and why am I here?”  The answers often get lost in the fog of everyday life.

Far too often our self-worth is based on our feelings of value from our job skills, achievements, status, rank, possessions, financial resources or our physical appearance.  Sometimes our appraisal is over valued and we become arrogant. 

Tragically, the appraisal often deteriorates when we don’t see ourselves meeting society’s criteria.  Admiration and success are fleeting and soon we seek the satisfaction of the achievements and possessions that once fed us emotionally.  Hunger is a natural and basic need.  We instinctively know how to satisfy the need, but it is not through fasting.   When we feel the emotional emptiness provided by status, money or beauty we often try to fill ourselves with more of the same.  Like treating the crash of a sugar high with more sweets the cycles become harder and harder to control.  The empty calories of another doughnut are not the solution.

Continuing the analogy, when eating a balanced diet, how much is enough?  Is more of a good thing better?

Once we are fed and clothed with a roof over our heads, more is just more.  There is nothing inherently wrong with more, but it’s still just more.  When we see our worth tied to material possessions or characteristics, beyond the basics,  we are destined to experience fear, anger or regret.  Fear that I am going to lose something I believe I “need”.  Anger that I don’t have something I feel I deserve.  Regret that I didn’t acquire or prevent the loss of something my psyche requires.

Like self worth, our identity is at great risk when it is tied to something external.  We lose control over it.  I  have heard the contemporary motorcycle culture referred to as thousands of people dressing exactly alike to be seen as radical individualists.   When identity is tied to possessions, affiliations, clothing (whether designer or grunge), position, rank or recognized beauty we are defined by things outside of ourselves.  We become identified by an object, situation, looks or possession.  Our identity becomes only as secure as these things are.   In this condition it is not hard to see how our friends, fear, anger and regret are always close by.

Even without the help of a guardian angel we can examine our lives and reflect how our family and community are affected by our presence.  If we were never born, how would these groups be transformed.  The quality of our relationships is an excellent measure of our significance in the lives of others.  In that respect our worth is easy to evaluate.

What do we want for an identity?  Hopefully, one that looks the same in the mirror as it looks to others.  What are the adjectives that we use to describe ourselves? What are the points on our moral compass that help us navigate a course that avoids fear, anger and regret?

Although I am proud to have earned the Eagle Scout Award, even a Tenderfoot is required to memorize the Boy Scout Law.

A Scout is:


Friday, February 18, 2011

"When Pride Still Mattered"

With the press coverage of the Packers' Super Bowl appearance and the coincidental success of the Broadway play "Lombardi" I became curious to find out more about the greatest of all football coaches.  I downloaded a copy of "When Pride Still Mattered" by David Maraniss for my iPad.  The title was attractive to me as well because 33 years ago this week I went to work for Continental Air Lines.  At the time the airline's motto was, "See the difference pride makes."

1958, the year before Giants Assistant Coach Vince Lombardi arrived, the Green Bay Packers have the worst season in the team’s history, winning only one game.  The third head coach in as many years has resigns. The team has not had a winning season in more than three years. 

By 1983 Continental Airlines had changed.  For the next decade it languishes through a series of bankruptcies, shabby labor relations, mergers and consolidations, a pilot strike and numerous inept management teams.  In 1994 Gordon Bethune, a licensed pilot, certified A & P mechanic, veteran and former Boeing executive takes over the controls.

Like the Green Bay Packers before Lombardi, Continental Air Lines before Bethune was a losing team.  These two men would prove to provide their organizations the missing ingredient for success, leadership.

The year before before Lombardi became head coach the Packers had just one win.  He went on to win 5 championships in the next 8 seasons.

At Continental, after two bankruptcies, multiple CEOs and the worst reputation in the airline industry, the first thing Bethune had to do was cancel aircraft orders and convince Boeing to refund their deposits so that the company could make payroll.  Driven by the demand for its award winning service, in 1999 Continental took delivery of more new aircraft from Boeing than the manufacturer had ever delivered to any other airline in a single year.

What does pride look like?  I think it looks a lot like Vince Lombardi and it also looks like Gordon Bethune.

What do the legacies of Vince Lombardi and Gordon Bethune have in common.  Besides being outspoken, passionate, committed and wildly successful, most importantly they knew how to lead.

Vince Lombardi is probably the most widely quoted person ever when it comes to leadership and commitment.  His inspirational monologues have become become the standard by which all motivational orations are measured. Some of my favorites are:

“I firmly believe that any man's finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear, is the moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle - victorious”

“The price of success is hard work, dedication to the job at hand, and the determination that whether we win or lose, we have applied the best of ourselves to the task at hand.”

“The achievements of an organization are the results of the combined effort of each individual.”

“The measure of who we are is what we do with what we have.”

“Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.”

“Some of us will do our jobs well and some will not, but we will be judged by only one thing-the result”

Mr. Bethune's unpretentious phrases are not as famous outside the airline industry, however, no less profound.  A few are suitable for mixed company, and they usually are delivered with wit and wisdom reminiscent of Mark Twain or Will Rogers.  When he first arrived at Continental Bethune was asked about his plan to repair Continental's abysmal reputation, he simply replied, "There are no rearview mirrors in the cockpit."  One of his more flamboyant comments was generated when he tried to broker an alliance with Delta Air Lines in the late 1990's.  It is reported that he compared their senior management team to "a box of rocks".  His analysis was confirmed a few years later when Continental weathered the post 9-11 storm better than any other major airline.  Others including Delta were slow to react and were needlessly forced into bankruptcy despite having far more assets and resources.  Within 3 years Continental had recalled all of its furloughed pilots and reclaimed it pre 911 status as a vibrant and expanding company.  Gordon Bethune was a master of knowing his audience.  He lead through building relationships one co worker at a time.

Coach Lombardi didn't rely on a multitude of complex plays to win championships.  He inspired and empowered his players to perform the basics of blocking and tackling with passion, precision and consistency.  Gordon Bethune didn't depend on explicit and extensive procedures to govern his employees every move.  He gave them the authority and inspiration to just do what they had been trained to do, take care of the customer.  He once led a group of employees to a parking lot to burn policy manuals he thought were oppressive.  "Gordon" was commonly seen in the terminal and on the tarmac joking with employees,  hearing their ideas and listening to their concerns.  On time percentages went up and lost baggage claims plummeted.  Employees who had once been ashamed to work for Continental were now flooding the company store buying "spirit wear".

For Gordon Bethune, the airline industry was just another business like football was just another game for Lombardi.  Coach Lombardi said, "A player has to love the game and believe in his own abilities if he wants to achieve greatness."  Bethune had that same belief in himself and in his employees.  He believed that with leadership his players could win. And win they did.   Continental routinely captured Fortune, Conde Nast and J. D. Powers' highest awards.

Lombardi's career at Green Bay was 9 seasons.  Bethune led Continental for just a decade.  Their accomplishments were remarkable, but even more uncommon because they were achieved in such a short period of time.  They achieved admiration for what they accomplished rather than just receiving respect for the position they occupied.  Coach and Gordon, as they were affectionately referred to, are still revered by all who had the pleasure to have worked or played with them. 

Who will be the next Lombardi or Bethune?  Are there any out there with the courage and commitment to pass up the easy, well traveled road?  There are certainly many groups of employees and teams of players who are desperate for a leader.  Who will accept the challenge and responsibility of leadership?   Will these employees and players be satisfied or will they be handed more memorandums, platitudes and alibis? 

“It is time for us all to stand and cheer for the doer, the achiever -- the one who recognizes the challenges and does something about it.” 

Vincent Thomas Lombardi 
June 11, 1913 - September 3, 1970

Friday, February 11, 2011


A recent Flight Manual revision for the aircraft I am currently flying changed the explanatory language for setting the flaps on the After Start checklist.  Previously it said, "The Captain's response to the challenge Flaps is the order to select the flap lever to the desired flap setting."  The latest revision added a statement so that it now reads "…to the desired flap setting as indicated on the ACCULOAD (the computerized weight and balance manifest)."  Desired by whom? What would be the "desired flap setting" if not the one on the weight and balance manifest?  Do we have crews getting to this part of the After Start procedure and thinking either out loud or to themselves, "hmmmmmm I wonder what flap setting I want to use today?  I think I'll go with 15."  No, I don't think so.  If we did, that would indicate an incredible breakdown in our training process.  I can accept the need to document in the procedure the flap setting that must be set, but that is a totally different message.  That verbiage would be"…to the setting indicated on the ACCULOAD."

This might seem like a irrelevant and esoteric discussion, but it represents a more profound issue within airline flight operations.  That issue is the role of policy in air transportation. The rules, regulations, procedures, checklist, placards, standard operating procedure that govern commercial aviation.  Is their purpose to be an end in and of themselves and if that objective is met everything else will fall in place.  Or, are they established to create an environment where airlines and their crews are tasked to provide safe and reliable air transportation? Pilot error is still responsible for the majority of hull loss accidents.   Can procedures and regulations be written to reduce or eliminate these accidents?    Isn't an error, by definition, a deviation from procedure.  Maybe the most important regulations and procedures could include the statement, "We REALLY need you to follow this procedure."  Or maybe write a procedure that eliminates errors.

Far too often in our industry, those responsible for flight operations are caught up chasing their tails by writing more procedures to make their crews more compliant.  Procedural standardization is the bedrock of safe operations in the airline industry.  However, unlike the field of dreams, "because you build it doesn't mean they will come."  It is a properly trained AND motivated crew that will create a safe operation not just assume they are operating under the umbrella of one.

When a Northwest crew flew 150 miles past their destination, was it because their procedures were inadequate? If they were, crews should have been flying NORDO all over the country.  Was it because the crew was not properly trained? If any airline is letting inadequately trained crews fly revenue flights there is another more serious problem.  Was this crew poorly supervised?  Who routinely supervises airline crews when they are on the flight deck?  It's not a hard question, it's one of those "Who's buried in Grant's tomb?".  They supervise THEMSELVES!  Or not.

The reason that we can't get the pilot error component under control is because neither the pilots nor their managements want to admit the dirty little secret.  Companies feel they have met their responsibility by developing and training procedures.  The pilots feel they have met their responsibility because they see their job as following a "procedural recipe".  When the inevitable human error takes place the system falls apart.

The more effective operators have introduced error management into their training programs.  The airlines that have made this paradigm shift are heading in the right direction, but they haven't gone far enough.  They have in fact only scratched the surface.  The next big reduction in hull loss accidents will come when crews are trained to make safe operations the goal rather than procedural compliance.  Procedural compliance is an essential component, but not a guarantor of safe operations.   At the present time, pilots routinely confuse what is prudent with what is legal.  The unfortunate overrun accident at Chicago Midway in 2007 is an excellent example.   Because pilots are routinely unsupervised during line operations, they must be self correcting.  To get to this next, self correcting level, companies will have do some humbling self evaluation.  It will take a big dose of personal responsibility by both pilots and managers.  Right now both groups blame each other and the procedures for operational failures.  The pilots will need to "own" the precept that they are responsible for the safe operation of their flight with the resources provided them.  The companies will have to accept responsibility for providing the resources to make that happen.  Primarily, companies will have to accept the responsibility for training their crews effectively in the "mentality" of safe operations.   This training will not be the traditional 90% stick and rudder and 10% CRM.  It will be an entirely new and additional type of training.  This non technical, highly motivational training will require the understanding and mastery of the components and creation of a self correcting crew.  Crews will need to learn the skill of not just accepting, but actively seeking support and critique from their fellow pilots.  Not just the platitude but the practice of "what's right, not who's right".  Companies cannot write and train a procedure that ensures safe operations.  Crews must be trained to self correct and voluntarily peruse the goal of safe operations because they believe it's the right thing to do.

Some companies might claim they already have this environment, but they would be mistaken.  If they did they wouldn't need to worry so much about their pilots wondering what’s the "desired" setting.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Standardized Tests and Airline Safety

Airline safety is a term that is almost universally misused.  It reminds me of one of my father's favorite expressions, "It's a known fact!".  Known by whom?

The main issue I have with the term "airline safety" is that it is used too liberally.  Also, it is used to communicate what may or may not happen in the future.  Applying one general label to describe the performance of a very large organization with thousands of employees performing thousands of operations daily is at the very least naive.

First, we need to look at the the difference between risk and safety.  Risk is the probability of something bad happening, whereas safety is the condition of being protected from something bad.  For example, landing on an icy runway would be a risk.   Safety is the process of minimizing that risk.  The risk is minimized by managing the individual threats that make the operation risky.  In the case of icy runways some threats would be braking action, mechanical failure, wind direction and velocity, visibility, pilot error, etc.   Airline companies along with the FAA are and should be responsible for identifying risk and establishing safety, or the management of threats and errors.

Although one could say that a fatal or hull loss accident is an indicator of an airline's level of safety, that would be far too simplistic.  That reasoning is similar to simply assigning a student's test failure to the teacher.  The teacher has a significant role, but individual performance is the deciding factor.  It's all about the relationship.  

In the test analogy, teacher effectiveness can have a profound effect on student performance, but is rarely taken into account.  Airline managers, like teachers have a tremendous impact on the individual performance of their employees and students.  We now know ,however, that the accounting of test scores and standardized test results does a very poor job of evaluating overall teacher effectiveness.  The same line of thinking is used to assign a "safety rating" to an airline from statistics generated by it's individual employees.  To carry this analogy a bit further, I believe the practice of "teaching the test " and calling it learning is much like the development and training of procedures and calling that safety.   It is the effective application of information and knowledge that will allow students to be successful and airline employees to be safe.

Safety management systems, or SMS, is the new safety solution for the FAA and the airline industry.  It's an admirable pursuit, but not the panacea it is thought to be.  I believe it will be an effective framework for creating a safety consciousness among managers, however, that is just the beginning.    Executives and managers can only provide resources, it is the front line employees that are ultimately responsible for managing threats.  The way those resources are provided can have significant influence on the number of incidents and accidents.  Did I mention it is all about the relationship?  Where there is a test failure there is a disconnect between teacher and student.  When an accident has a contributing factor of poor decision making a disconnect is uncovered between procedure and employee performance. 

I would submit that the same characteristics of an effective teacher are shared by effective airline executives and managers.  They are student or employee centered.  By that I mean the process is not just handing out a syllabus or procedure, but rather having regular and meaningful interaction with the individual to discuss his or her understanding of the material and the context.  Additionally, a significant, but often overlooked role of the teacher or manager is motivation.  When was the last time you saw a group of students or employees that were too motivated?  Just presenting the material is not enough.  It takes whatever it takes.  Effective teachers and managers share the responsibility of the outcome with the individual. 

There is one significant difference between the airline manager and classroom teacher.  The exam is not academic.  There are no retakes.  The only passing grade is 100%.