The term ‘human factors’ has been in the aviation lexicon since the 1970s to describe the ‘non-technical’ skills required to operate an aircraft safely in a team-based environment. These ‘non-technical’ skills refer to the people stuff – the teamwork, communication, perceptual skills and decision-making – which are all needed to complement the ‘technical skills’ (flying the machine).

Historically, human error has been a primary cause of a significant number of aviation incidents, and to address this, ‘human factors’ training (known as ‘Crew Resource Management’ or CRM), is now mandatory for all commercial airline pilots to reduce the likelihood of perfectly serviceable aircraft crashing.

These CRM programs acknowledge human fallibility and focus on developing behavioural changes around closed loop communication (to develop shared mental models), respectful challenge of superiors, clear role delineation active monitoring of operations, and load sharing to avoid overwhelm.

Human factors training programs, based on the aviation CRM programs, have been implemented in other high risk, dynamic work environments – for example, the maritime industry introduced a maritime equivalent of CRM, known as Bridge Resource Management (BRM), in the 1990s. The question is, can CRM programs be effectively applied to other industries?

In one way or another, ‘human factors’ impact all organisations. I’ve often heard people lamenting the practice within their organisation of promoting technically competent people into managerial positions – without (apparently) the requisite managerial skills? This practice seems to be widespread and assumes technical competence equals management competence. Maybe there is a hope that ‘they should grow into the role’ or ‘they’ll pick it up soon enough’. And maybe they will. However, as the aviation industry will attest aircraft captains needs to have sound ‘non-technical’ skills to establish a teamwork environment, as well as being able to fly the aircraft.

In the aviation world, CRM programs teach aircraft captains to be inclusive, to actively encourage crew members to challenge, to verbalise intentions and to engage crew members in decision-making to eliminate cognitive bias (i.e. seeing things incorrectly). Other crew members are taught to be respectfully assertive and to challenge aircraft captains when required, and the importance of ‘monitoring’. This is pretty big in a historically hierarchical work setting. However, the old days of the co-pilot being there as an assistant to the captain is gone. Sure, the captain is still in charge, but nowadays, in any cockpit in any multi-crewed aircraft there is the ‘pilot flying’ and the ‘pilot monitoring’. The monitoring role is as seen as equally important as flying.

Maybe in your organisation, the outcomes of poor teamwork may not end up on the nightly news, unlike in the aviation world; although the impacts may be more subtle, they are probably significant. But the reality is, it doesn’t have to be that way.

I’ve run a number of human factors programs for organisations to improve teamwork and organisational effectiveness. The most recent was a program for a Brisbane based organisation in late 2015. Participant feedback on completion identified some outstanding outcomes: 92% of participants agreed or strongly agreed they had a better understanding of how teamwork impacts their work process; 96% felt that the program helped to improve working relationships between work areas; 92% felt that important business improvements were identified as a result of the program, and 92% felt that other staff would benefit from participating in these programs.

If you want to improve teamwork and organisational effectiveness, a ‘human factors’ program is worth considering.

Graham Miller,
cofounder of Humans Being At Work