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Feature: Why crew resource management matters

written by Adam Thorn | December 24, 2020

Talking Leads Aviation Network is a collection of airlines, executives, captains, engineers and aviation professionals that have united to ensure the future of commercial aviation. Recently, they discussed the importance of crew resource management and how far-reaching the ability to lead a team is to the overall performance of a flight crew. Here, Talking Leads’ Viola Gibson discusses what the team has learned.

Crew resource management is celebrated as the convergence of concepts and attitudes resulting in a practical approach to the management of a flight deck. Many would associate the term CRM with an aviation accident, or incident report where deficiency in human performance has resulted in an unwanted outcome. Crews involved in these accidents and incidents started with a typical “day in the office”.

Various reasons and uncanny combination of events can change a day into a day, one would rather forget. CRM is so much more than what is analysed in an accident or incident report. CRM skills sets are essential for successfully managing normal, abnormal and emergency situations on a flight deck.

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These skills need to be trained and practised to become a standard part of everyday flight operations, keeping in mind that this typical “day in the office” may become atypical at any time. So, let us have a look at what some of the cornerstones of these CRM concepts are and how as a flight crew we can mitigate unforeseen problems, and return the day to normal, maintaining the safety and integrity of the aircraft.

CRM and teamwork

Teamwork is a crucial aspect for the successful application of crew resource management but who is that team?

People might think the team is a captain and a first officer, which to a degree is correct, but that isn’t all. When flying an Airbus A320, for example, on Australian domestic routes, there are also four flight attendants in the team. Sure, many may say that’s obvious. However, we must look further as the team is bigger than that. There are the ground handling agents and baggage loaders, refuelers, engineers, gate staff, HQ operations, flight planning teams, ATC, and many more that are in the background working on “our team”. They are not always visible, but essential for a safe and efficient operation and the job could not be done without them.

We need to involve them all as “recourses” in our “crew management” every day. They all play a part in our operation and by growing our skills and knowledge together, we are doing our part in making aviation safer.

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CRM is a huge subject and a lot of literature has been written about it over the last decades. When we read into CRM training manuals, it becomes apparent that there are five critical elements of CRM that are very important, and I would like to briefly outline these in relation to what we have discussed in our latest “Talking Leads” online conversation:

1 Leadership

As an aircraft captain we have a great influence on the performance of the rest of the crew and need to apply three symbiotic leadership roles: commander, leader and manager. This applies similarly to all the other team leaders involved in aviation.

Effective CRM recognises that different leadership styles are necessary for different situations. They can range from a “stop or go” decision made solely by the commander at the decision speed V1, to collaborative problem solving when a problem presents itself and the captain deals with it using decision making models such as DODAR or FORDEC to simply defining the limits of a decision to be made and let the team decide. For example, on an overnight, asking the crew “where do we eat tonight?”

If we look into a situation that presents itself, it is important to remember that as a leader, we don’t always know all the answers. But we need to know where to look for them and who to ask, who to involve in finding a solution. Effective Leadership is not about who is right but what is the right thing to do. There are parts of the day-to-day operation that we would perhaps have only a limited understanding or knowledge about, and when a situation presents itself in that area the best way is to allow the person in our team who has the most knowledge and information about the matter to give their expertise, and then make the decision based on this new acquired information. This type of leadership doesn’t mean to surrender our role as a commander but simply means we use the resources of our team to their best capability and therefore giving our mission the best chance of success. It is important for effective leadership that as a leader we make sure that each crew member knows his or her role in the team. A team is most effective when every crew member knows what is expected of them and what to expect from the other crew members. In the environment of an aircraft, this is usually defined through operating manuals and SOPs. In a crisis situation, team performance is greatly improved when every individual meets their roles as expected.

2 Situational awareness

What is situational awareness? We can say, it is to stay mentally ahead of the airplane or the situation we are in. The key questions are: What is going on at the moment? What has gone on in the past? What may go on in the future?

A practical scepticism inspires us to continuously update our understanding of a situation and therefore staying mentally ahead of the situation. We all have different backgrounds, experiences and training and we need to be aware that this has an impact on our individual perception of a situation.

One important part of CRM training is to teach crews how to identify signs that their perception could be wrong. For instance, when you don’t meet your ETA over a waypoint. Don’t leave this unresolved to find out why, as this could be the first sign that things are not what you think they are. Awareness at times is harder to maintain than it may seem. If we have to deal with too many tasks at the same time, we may become overloaded. Or the opposite, on long flights with not much going on, crew can become bored and perhaps less interested in what is going on around them.

In both cases we can be at risk of having a single distraction absorbing all our attention resulting in a potential decrease of situational awareness. Having too high or too low workload is not always avoidable. As crews we have to learn to recognise these situations and how to proactively manage them accordingly. Being methodical is key and regularly taking a step back to look at the “big pig picture” essential.

3 Problem solving

As a crew we can only accurately identify a problem if we analyse all parts of the information presented.

The importance of a piece of individual information may only be truly understood when it is incorporated into the big picture.

As a crew we work better and get to a better solution if we work together. Collaboration is important here. It is important that crew members are assertive but not aggressive in contributing their information or opinion and are open to the opinions and ideas of others. Once we have received all the important information, we can make better judgement of the options, have a better picture of the overall situation and can make the best possible decision at that time. Once a decision is made it is important to keep everyone in the team involved and brief them of the plan of action, making sure that everyone understands what needs to be done.

It is very important to continuously review this plan of action and look for any changes to the original information that the plan was made on and evaluate if adjustments or changes need to be made. As mentioned earlier, there are many different decision-making models out there but the principles are always similar. It starts with an analysis of the situation and gathering information. Defining what needs to be achieved. Developing solutions or alternatives. Assess everything. Make a decision.

Execute. Analyse the new situation. An example is the FORDEC model which was popular at the beginning of my flying career in Germany, and that stuck with me the most. It is one of many models and I use it here as an example.

F – Facts: What is the problem? Analyse the situation. Gather information.

O – Options: What options are available? Draw together different courses of action.

R – Risks and Benefits: Pros and Cons of different courses of actions? Assess the risks and prospects of success.

D – Decision: What are we going to do? Choose the option with most prospects of success and least risks.

E – Execution: What steps need to be taken? Who is doing what, when and how? Execute the chosen option.

C – Check: Is the situation still the same? Has anything changed? Can we improve our situation? Comparing the actual effects with expected effects. Has everything been carried out? Have new facts emerged? Do they have an impact on the chosen option?

4 Communication

Good communication skills are essential for effective team work. As a leader you set the tone for the day. It is important to create an environment that creates a free flow of information within the crew.

When disagreeing with an input it is very important to react appropriately and avoid making the other person feel rejected or ignored. The more people in a team that are trained in effective communication, the better the effective teamwork and the outcome of day-to-day tasks as well as abnormal situations.

5 Briefing and de-briefing

Briefings are important and are essential to keep everyone in the loop of what is going on to make sure we are on the same page as we work together with our immediate and wider team.

It is important to conduct a good briefing for the day ahead with your immediate crew. This includes encouraging the crew to “say something when they see something” and ask questions if they are not sure about anything. “There is not such a thing as a stupid question”. Give positive feedback for inputs from crew members, as this will encourage them to bring forward important information in problem solving situations.

Along with briefing before the beginning of the working day and all the shorter briefings through-out the day, we must also consider a debrief on completion of the day. This should be considered as a review or evaluation of the working day, where we have the opportunity to learn the most.

Debriefings don’t need to be huge, but they help to open up the conversation for an analysis of what happened, what went well and what didn’t go so well.

Should it be necessary to critique someone or give feedback regarding their performance we can use some useful practical guidelines.

  • Critique the performance not the person, don’t blame the person;
  • Be specific and give suggestions on how to improve;
  • Critique should be well timed and considerate;
  • Look at the strengths and weaknesses. Be genuine with praise;
  • Be open and honest and ask for feedback.

Should you be on the receiving end of a feedback it may help to follow these useful tips.

  • Resist reacting emotionally;
  • Have an open mindset for the benefit of a critique or feedback;
  • Make sure you correctly understand the matter raised;
  • Ask questions to help you analyse the feedback. This will help you learn from it and become better in your performance;
  • Tell the other person that you appreciate their feedback and thank them.

Debriefing is a fantastic tool, which brings closure to the events of the day and provides an opportunity to address any unresolved issues. This is especially important after abnormal events have occurred.

So, let’s talk. Let’s have that chat at the end of day, it will make a whole lot of a difference. If we make it a habit to finish the day with a debrief, then we all have an opportunity to learn, grow and become better at our CRM skills as well.

In conclusion

CRM it is something that needs to be practised every day. Over time these skills become second nature and allow us to deal with abnormal situations with more confidence and competence, resulting in a better co-ordinated and methodical approach to whatever the “day in the office” might throw at us.

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