Crew Resource Management

Mankind has made remarkable achievements: We build and operate marvelous machines and organizations: But we also have the unbelievable capacity to screw up, big time.

May 30, 2013 22:18
THE COCKPIT of a plane.

airplane cockpit 370. (photo credit: REUTERS/Guillermo Granja)

"No way, you've got it wrong," the senior pilot lashed out. We were listening to the "black box" recording of cockpit communications, minutes before a fatal crash. The rooky copilot had just alerted the crew on critical data, but after this discouraging and condescending response by the pilot, he did not attempt it again.

"A good CRM workshop could have altered the outcome," someone whispered. I couldn't agree more.

Crew Resource Management was born in a NASA workshop in 1979, where careful examination of colossal mishaps showed that most were caused by lack of communication and integration, and not by lack of personal skill or proficiency.

It is the broader "human factor" rather than the one dimensional "pilot error."

CRM is a methodology which teaches how to use available resources (equipment, procedures and people) in a way that optimizes the efficiency of the organization, while minimizing risk factors.

Various aspects of team functionality and productivity are addressed: interpersonal communication, decision making, workload and stress management, leadership and followship, situational and self awareness, event and mission analysis, and more.

From aviation, CRM has made its way into other safety-sensitive environments, the first being fire services, where situational awareness is critical. It has evolved and even changed names, but still deals with the same basic themes.

In "operationally" oriented organizations, CRM is usually seen as a means to mitigate risks and prevent mishaps, especially in areas where failure results in loss of life. But it is now understood that CRM can streamline the efficiency of any organization that relies on effective teamwork for achieving joint goals.

People operating machines under diverse external environments construct a complex system of interdependent influences.  The most complicated component is the human factor, mainly how people interact with each other.

The first important task is defining who comprises the team. In a commercial airliner, for instance, the crew consists of all the people who influence the flight, including maintenance crew, flight attendants, traffic controllers and pilots. This is why the 'c' in CRM changed from 'Cockpit' to 'crew'.

This all makes perfect sense, but is not that easy to implement. CRM is a good example of a methodology that has taken decades to develop, refine and implement. Some issues are not intuitive and even challenge natural human behavior, such as overcoming ego.

Just imagine trying to urge a ship captain in the 19th century to adopt CRM. I'm sure he would have felt uncomfortable attending a workshop with a cabin boy and a midshipman and calling them "teammates".

It takes shifting to a different mindset.

Cultural differences dictate the nature of CRM implementation. Some find it difficult (if not impossible) to expose weaknesses and change organizational culture.

In Israel, the "touchy-feely" nature of practicing CRM does not come naturally, and above all there is the usual "we know better" mentality.

With all this talk about teams and teamwork, it's important to remember that CRM does not reduce the need for leadership. On the contrary. But it does necessitate a different leadership style. The term 'leader' is not as popular in Hebrew as it is in English, and unfortunately this is not only a technical difference.

In today's managerial world, effective leaders must use their authority sparingly. They must invest a significant portion of their resources in nurturing a constructive working relationship with their teams. The old fashioned "single-seat," over-bearing, dictatorial approach will no longer work, even in the military.

No one can put it better than General Stanley McChrystal, who after retiring from the US military founded a consulting firm, focusing on leadership.

4 out of 7 of McChrystal-Group's "CrossLead" principals relate directly to the centrality of teamwork. First is the need to build a foundation of relationships based on trust and teamwork. They stress the importance of aligning the team around a clearly defined vision, set of values and an achievable and resilient strategy. Another principal is to force and foster a culture of inclusion, transparency, and accountability through constant communication, and finally, create shared ownership by decentralizing decision-making and execution to the most effective level.

To me this describes the ideal organization.

CRM teaches, and reaches, optimization of combined efforts. Besides ideas and ideals, there are practical techniques that are taught and trained: Briefings are crucial, not only to prepare the technical aspects of the tasks ahead, but in order to set the stage and shape the group climate.

A topic that I am personally passionate about is the need for Standard Operating Procedures (SOP). While functioning in a stressful environment and when errors have grave consequences, protocols and procedures help focus the team and mitigate errors. This is also an area where Israelis have difficulty, as we take pride in our creativity and flexibility.

It is essential to mitigate ego clashes, so it is best to ascertain what the right course of action is, and not whose opinion is right.

One of the greatest challenges is how to question authority and alert others when problems emerge. The idea is to create an organizational culture that promotes open communication between supervisors and subordinates. Some need to learn how to listen, others how to speak up. Concern should be expressed when a crew member senses a discrepancy between what is happening and what he feels should be happening. The trick is to do so with the right balance of modesty and assertiveness. It's the timing, tone, choice of words and recommended actions that dictate if critical information will be accepted and acted upon.

Mankind has made remarkable achievements. We build and operate marvelous machines and organizations. But we also have the unbelievable capacity to screw up, big time. Organizations which embrace the concepts of CRM enhance their performance, achieve better results and minimize failure.

This week, I spoke to a group of nurses in a Tel Aviv hospital. I was happy to witness their fluency and enthusiasm with CRM methodology. "The days are over when surgeons thought they were gods," a veteran nurse told me, "I speak up now, and they listen."

The writer is a former pilot in the IAF, founder of Cross-Cultural Strategies Ltd. and International Project Manager at CockpitRM.

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