Bon Appe Airplane
All Things Technical and Edible
An aircraft with the cockpit door open showing the empty pilot seat and cockpit.

D-59: 5 Techniques to help your team setup their ‘flight deck.’

This is a continuation of the departure series exploring the techniques and systems that airlines use, and how we can use similar approaches to improve our productivity.

Introduction

Often there is less than 30 minutes scheduled between the crew arriving at the airplane and departure. This time, called flight deck setup or preflight, can often be one of the busiest sections of the flight for the crew.

There are bags to stow, briefings to conduct, checklists to run, flight plan data to enter, and more. When the system is not running perfectly to schedule, things get even more exciting.

How can we use some of the procedures outlined for cockpit setup to organize our team’s tasks?

The crews are what I miss most about flying every week.

Brief: Talk through the plan.

Before heading into the flight deck, the whole crew meets to discuss the mission. Topics include weather information, security, and many other things. Any special considerations or procedures are also covered.

Most importantly, every team member gets the chance to ask questions, even ‘dumb’ questions.

Often, when discussing unusual procedures, the crew members involved will restate exactly what their role is in its execution. This makes sure these uncommon tasks are fresh in everyone’s mind. It also gives the team and leader an opportunity to identify and address any misunderstandings that might arise.

This isn't even limited to just a pre-flight brief. Follow up after and talk about what just happened.

Flight Deck Displays

Areas of Responsibility: Team members know their domain.

Getting settled in, pilots and flight attendants have designated physical and mental areas of responsibility. On the ground I have my side of the flight deck, and most of the lower panels to setup. The captain would be setting up his/her side and the upper panels. We need to trust that the other is managing theirs and leave verifying that for later on in the process.

This should also be flexible to meet the capabilities and needs of the crew during the mission.

Approaching the runway for departure, we switch AORs from captain and first officer, to pilot flying and pilot monitoring. In this configuration the pilot flying manages the controls that effect the aircraft’s flight path, and the pilot monitoring does almost everything else.

We need to make sure each member of the team has clearly defined responsibilities and remains within them.

Two people trying to do one job leads to a couple problems. For one, that likely means there is a task being neglected. But you will also see that the single task often takes longer this way. Then there is the most disruptive problem; two people doing the same task at the same time without knowing it.

This is all not to say that crossing lines is a high sin. If task saturation requires it, then go for it, just with clear communication as to what you’re doing and why.

The 'Box' - simulators on motion platforms are used to practice workflows.

Workflows: Systematic processes toward completion.

Within the areas of responsibilities, there are many switches and knobs and dials. Before each flight they all need to be verified to be in the correct positions. The fastest way to do this without mistakenly missing any is to systematically scan around the flight deck. We call this process a flow. Start at the top and work down in columns, move left to right, etc.

Another advantage to workflows is the muscle memory produced. Humans fall into habit patterns when doing something the same way every time. Think about it; have you ever really had to remind yourself to brush your teeth?

Perhaps these are defined in a visual guide, or an acronym. While some can, not all workflows should define every single task and how to complete it, but instead should be an abstract guide.

Defined workflows can speed up things regardless of the individual’s experience with the task.

One great example of this for me was the flight management system setup the airline used. (The flight management system is the ‘brain box’ of the airplane, managing things like fuel planning and navigation.) I’d flown with the same make and model of system for about 3 years before I got to the airline, but the procedure they used was much faster than what I would have done otherwise. And it was as simple as an acronym reminding you the specific page order to enter data in the computer.

Galley chats are the water cooler of aviation.

Cross Familiarity: Everyone gets the big picture.

Now, perhaps to contradict myself slightly, team members should also be somewhat familiar with the other team members jobs. I was trained on the captain’s jobs in the airplane, even practicing it in the simulator with my partner, and familiarized with the flight attendant’s workflow.

This helps the team become more cohesive and allows them to operate smoother. I can avoid doing something that would disturb someone else. It’s also helpful to know when something is overdue or missed, enabling me to remind the team member or offer help.

This might be as simple as understanding other team member deliverables and timelines, or as complex as fully cross training all the team members.

Could team members be given the opportunity to job shadow others once a quarter? These new eyes might also help identify some inefficiencies in the workflows. (We will talk in detail about user feedback on procedures in a future article!)

Checklists should be short and sweet reminders.

Checklists: A simple reminder system.

Periodically during the preflight, and in flight as well, we pause to execute a checklist. We run through the processes done up to this point, most often together, sometimes alone, and verify that mission critical tasks have been executed.

Workflows are intentionally vague, but checklists should not be. They should be very specific, only covering individual task or individual workflows that have been completed already. However, be very careful that they do not become overly verbose.

Checklists should never be accomplished from memory. All of the checklists used in normal operations of the CRJ fit on one side of a sheet of letter sized paper.

One line from the before start checklist might be: “Air Conditioning Panel - Set.” Obviously, this summarized a few smaller steps, and is just a reminder to verify those have been completed.

If one workflow has a lot of mission critical tasks, make that workflow its own checklist.

One of my favorite examples of checklists in an office was from a sales work group. (Come back for more, as I plan to write about checklists at length in a future article.) They developed a Post-It note sized checklist that was taped to every deal folder, tracking the collection of required documents as the deal went forward.

The panel open on the nose controls ground servicing systems.

Conclusion

Think about your team and the day to day tasks they do. How could you brief, maintain AORs, build workflows, cross train, and use checklists to help organize?

This is just as important for individuals as it is for teams. I flew single pilot for most of my flying career, creating and using all of these procedures myself.

I hope you enjoyed this! Consider sharing this with your network, team members, or manager and discuss how you might build your team’s standard operating procedures. This is part of a weekly series discussing team management, task management, and leadership techniques I learned in the airlines.

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