5 Lessons Project Management Can Learn From The Aviation Field

Introduction
Organizations are in desperate need of creating predictable outcomes and managing the risk inherent in almost all of their project management initiatives. This is true whether they are designing products, performing services for clients, managing technology, implementing a government initiative, or any of a number of different projects. The purpose of this white paper is to identify five lessons (there are many more) that project management can learn from the aviation field to accomplish this objective of predictable outcomes and managed risk.

Why Aviation?
Aviation is a rich source of information because it has already gone through the pain and consequences of not having predictable outcomes and has largely come through the other side. That is not to say that aviation is perfect, but aviation has done a stellar job of taking an inherently risky activity (flying) and creating safe, predictable outcomes. It has learned what is necessary.

Project management does not pursue predictable outcomes to the same degree as aviation has pursued them. This may be due to the fact that the consequences of a failure in aviation are far higher than the consequences of a failure in the typical project that we manage.

This idea of consequences is we target aviation as a good source. Aviation has been forced to develop methods of dealing with risk and creating predictable outcomes. Many of these same lessons that aviation has already been forced to learn can be applied directly to project management.

Implement Predictable and Standardized Processes
When you fly, you cannot do things on a whim. There are specific procedures that you must follow. When an airliner comes in to land, there are certain things you do at certain times – when the flaps come down, when the landing gear comes down, the specific route to fly for a specific airport. If there is an emergency, there is a procedure for it. Pilots do not wonder what to do. They have been trained to follow certain procedures.

Aviation has recognized the great importance of creating these predictable processes where risk is involved. For example, when approaching a major airport, there are documented, published procedures that every pilot must follow called Standard Terminal Arrivals (or STARs). A pilot will review these procedures even before they take off. When they are assigned by air traffic control what the currently used STAR procedure is, they know exactly what they will do and how they will fly. There is no “I wonder how we should fly into Atlanta today?” Project management cannot create predictable outcomes if it does not similarly implement predictable and standardized processes to deal with normal operations as well as contingencies.

Here are some of the specific guidelines we can learn from aviation as to the implementation of these processes:

  • The processes must be well documented and accessible.
  • Everyone must follow the processes.
  • Everyone must be continuously trained on the processes.
  • The processes must be continuously evaluated and improved over time.

There are several advantages to implementing this in our project management practices. These advantages include:

  • Eliminating confusion (everyone knows the proper steps and activities).
  • Providing a clear plan for how to produce a desired outcome.
  • Communicating the desired outcome.
  • Reducing workload by eliminating needless communications, decision making, and activities that should be routine.

Just like aviation has created standard procedures to create the predictable outcome of landing at a major airport (thus making it safe and routine), project management needs standard procedures to create the predictable outcome of a new product, a customer implementation, a new service, or whatever your desired outcome happens to be.

Defining Clear Roles and Responsibilities
Clear roles and responsibilities are critical in aviation. Each pilot knows their responsibility for each phase in flight and for every contingency. For example, when an airliner takes off, one pilot is the flying pilot and is focused on flying the airplane. The other pilot is the supporting pilot and does almost everything else such as talking with air traffic control, calling out airspeeds, and raising the landing gear and flaps at the appropriate times.

In the Hudson River incident for US Airways flight 1549 was ditched in the Hudson River, there was a brief but interesting exchange on the cockpit voice recorder transcript. First Officer Skiles was the flying pilot, but after the incident with the birds, Captain “Sully” Sullenberger said “My Aircraft.” No additional explanation or instruction was given, but both pilots knew that their role had just changed. Captain Sully was now the flying pilot and First Officer Skiles focus shifted to getting out the emergency engine out checklists.

The reason for these clear roles and responsibilities is because of the repercussions when they do not exist. In a lesser known event during the Apollo space program, Gene Cernan and John Young found their Apollo 10 lunar module (the one before the moon landing) spinning out of control. They were able to correct the situation, but the root cause was a simple misplaced switch. One pilot put the switch in one position. The other pilot inadvertently put the switch in the other position, not realizing what the first pilot had done. There was not a crystal clear distinction on who would throw the switch.

How many times in project management has there been a lot of unneeded activity, lack of decision making, duplicate effort, or competing initiatives simply because roles and responsibilities have not been clearly defined? Aviation’s experience would offer valuable lessons to implement in project management including:

  • Documenting roles and responsibilities (as opposed to assuming).
  • Setting roles and responsibilities for every project.
  • Setting roles and responsibilities for every process (that may be used across multiple projects).
  • Routinely communicating roles and responsibilities (instead of assuming everyone knows and understands them).
  • Maintaining accountability.
  • Continuously reviewing and updating responsibilities as needed.
  • Making sure that someone has the authority to make a decision.

There are several tools and methodologies for accomplishing this, including creating a RACI (responsible / accountable / consulted / informed) matrix.

A common argument is that people do not have the time for such definition. However, that is one of the benefits of doing so: to eliminate all of the time wasted because people do not understand everyone’s role. Additional benefits include:

  • Understanding who has the authority to make a decision.
  • Preventing competing activities.
  • Knowing who to keep informed.
  • Implementing proper accountability.

If your projects seem to be slowly spinning out of control, defining roles and responsibilities may be a good place to start.

Implementing Accountability
Aviation does not assume that everyone is following the standardized processes and maintaining their responsibility. It implements accountability measures to ensure that this is the case.

Pilots are required to attend training regularly where they learn new procedures, but they are also evaluated to ensure they are following proper procedures and have maintained a proper skill level. It doesn’t stop there. New pilots initially fly with an instructor pilot to ensure they are following what their training taught them. All pilots must occasionally fly with a check airman who evaluates the pilot’s performance in real-world operations. Captains hold First Officers accountable for following proper procedures.

When procedures are not properly followed, there is a clear course of action. That may be as serious as action from the FAA, or dismissal, or perhaps a visit to the airline’s chief pilot’s office.

Accountability is sometimes a bad word in project management but it is equally important. If people are not held accountable for following standardized procedures, how valuable are the procedures? Not very. If you are trying to implement predictable outcomes, how can you predict the outcome of a series of activities where people are not accountable to perform those activities in any sort of predictable fashion? You cannot.

Accountability provides many benefits to project management as it does to aviation:

  • It provides a clear view of what is expected of everyone.
  • It provides a clear understanding of what happens when the expectation is not met.
  • It ensures that activities are performed in a predictable fashion, thus contributing to a predictable outcome.

Employ Effective Training
Most people assume that the pilots that are flying their airliner have been properly trained, but they do not give it any more thought. The fact is that training is a huge part of the aviation paradigm and for good reason. Who wants to go on a flight with their family and put their lives in the hands of poorly trained pilots? There are a couple of key facets of aviation training that stand out:

  • Training is continuous.
  • Training is comprehensive and diverse.

We often view training as a one time event in project management. We train on a new system or to get a certain certification or learn a certain methodology. In aviation, training is a continuous part of the culture to create a safe, predictable outcome.

Pilots go through weeks of training when they first hire on with an airline. After that initial intense training, they perform additional training through on the job supervision and one on one training. It does not stop there. At least once a year, pilots are required to attend extensive classroom and simulator training.

The continuous training they undergo is also comprehensive and diverse in scope. It is not focused on a single area, such as technology or how to fly an airplane. Training includes at a minimum the following aspects:

  • Training on policies.
  • Training on standardized procedures.
  • Training on rules and regulations.
  • Training on roles and responsibilities.
  • Training on cockpit resource management (how to work better together).
  • Training on how to fly the airplane (skills).
  • Training on how to utilize the technology in the cockpit.
  • Training on the aircraft systems of the aircraft they will fly.
  • Training on contingencies.

Our training in project management is often a single event or is focused on technology instead of on ensuring that everyone has the knowledge and skills to create a predictable outcome for the organization.

Applying the experience of aviation, our project management training should turn into a continuous program. That does not mean it needs to always be formal training, but it does not to be continuously intentional.

Training also needs to cover the following essential areas:

  • Training on the organization’s standardized processes and how to follow them.
  • Training on roles and responsibilities.
  • Training on skills (how to be a good project manager or team member).
  • Training on the technology that will be used to accomplish the processes and predictable outcomes.

You cannot expect a predictable outcome if you do not regularly train people to create that predictable outcome.

Utilize Proper Tools and Technology
There was an article in a recent aviation periodical that referred to a newer generation airliner as a “650,000 pound laptop.” This referred to the fact that there is a lot of technology in today’s airline cockpits. In fact, when a pilot moves to a new airplane, much of the training is not on how to fly the airplane but on the technology and aircraft systems that need to be mastered.

Aviation uses technology to perform a number of support roles such as providing situational awareness during each phase in flight, and performing routine tasks that can be automated.

If we take this lesson in the perspective of what we have learned so far, it should also be recognized that utilizing tools and technology is an important but balanced part of the predictability of aviation. This simply means that:

  • Technology is not put off as not important to the overall goal of predictable outcomes.
  • Technology is also not overly emphasized over other aspects such as creating standardized processes.

There are clear lessons to learn in project management. Too often in project management we either focus too much on the tools and not the processes, or we focus on the processes but use poor tools such as spreadsheets. Either way, it is hard to create an environment of predictable outcomes.

Specifically in project management we need to use the right tools that:

  • Support our standardized processes.
  • Provide situational awareness.
  • Provide up to date information that the organization needs.
  • Provides insight into problems.
  • Automates things that can easily be automated.
  • Provides data from which to learn and improve processes.

Technology in the right context and usage provides another pillar from which to create those predictable outcomes.

Conclusion

Aviation has already learned through much experience (some good and some not so good) the important lessons of how to create predictable outcomes and manage inherent risk. It provides a good source of information that can be applied to our project management practices. Specifically, project management needs to:

  • Implement predictable and standardized processes
  • Define roles and responsibilities
  • Implement accountability
  • Employ effective training
  • Utilize Proper Tools and Technology

While certainly not an extensive list of the lessons that can be learned, these provide a good starting point to create the predictable processes in project management that our organizations today desperately need.