Keeping Everyone Safe in the New World of Automation: 5 Lessons from Aviation

Plant Managers share more than they may realize with commercial pilots. Doing the job well requires years of experience managing the product under their stewardship, the team (crew) around them, and their customers (passengers), all the while navigating the conditions up ahead, instructions from head office (flight towers) and strict regulatory rules. Many make real attempts to ensure their customers have a pleasant experience, including leaving and landing on time which are primary measures of day to day success. However, they all know the first order of business is keeping everyone under their care safe. Small errors of judgement can have catastrophic consequences. While most of us who travel a lot would like to share a thought or two with pilots on how to improve the experience of being a customer, there are several lessons we can all learn in business from how pilots do their job exceptionally well in keeping us safe.

Happily, most days there are no life-threatening crises to manage because all proper precautions have been taken. For pilots this is particularly the case because cockpit technologies have for decades been improving and “taking over” to the point where some believe the pilot’s job is largely to be there “just in case.” There is some truth in this as several degrees and types of automation are in play. Since human error accounts for the majority of incidents that occur involving airplane accidents, and the consequences are so dire, the obvious goal has been to reduce the amount of human intervention needed to fly a plane. However, pilots still see us through a safe takeoff and landing, balance the safest versus the most comfortable way through difficult weather and react to mechanical issues. This is no different for plant managers.  Automate all you want but a strong plant manager is still essential to keep your operation running safe at all times while keeping everyone as productive as possible.

The rest of business technology is starting to catch up to the world of aviation. The world of technology is accelerating and extending automation into every aspect of business life, with new frontiers being defined by cognitive technologies, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and the Internet of Things. Like flying an airplane, the notion is that we can replace human failure points with technology that never fatigues, never gets distracted, never needs an unexpected day off and mostly functions exactly as we program it. These developments have inspired debates around whether automation is always safer and what this means for our jobs.

The airline business has been seeking answers and creating solutions for decades that can help guide us. Starting on the jobs front, by the 1980s automated commercial cockpits had reduced the cockpit crew to just two positions, pilot and co-pilot. Flying a plane had previously taken up to five people. Then, as now, if your job was to manage the radio or to be the sole navigator, your skills have been replaced by advances in technology. If you are the fifth person, the flight engineer, there is still a job for you but it’s not on the plane and it’s undoubtedly time for a skills upgrade.

So, what about the promise of lower safety incidents balanced against the fear of technologies that sometimes go awry? Cars, trucks, and more and more manufacturing equipment will involve machine to machine communication, with no human necessary. Instructive on this front in aviation history was a fast forward from automation in the 80s to the events of 1994. Two Airbus aircraft crashed within the same year, claiming some 300 lives. What made these tragedies stand out from others was that both could have been averted easily by the seasoned pilots on board who were exceptionally well trained at flying a plane if only they had been equally trained at managing a plane’s systems. Pilots dream of flying, not managing computers. People who love to run machinery are not always the same as people who love to manage computer systems.

These scenarios continue to dominate our worst public fears: what happens if we can’t override the automations that are brought in and tragedy strikes? Businesses pushing forward in the new frontier can draw many lessons from aviation advances over the past three decades. Five key lessons come to mind:

Lesson 1: Aviate. Navigate. Communicate.

Rule number one, the Golden Rule of flying taught to every pilot is to “aviate, navigate, and communicate.” That set of priorities never waivers; it is what guides everyone who has a role to play in managing an aircraft during a crisis in the air. The popularized story of Captain Sully who landed his plane on the Hudson River perfectly illustrated the point. The four and a half minutes between engine failure and safe landing on the river shows him reducing communication to only what is necessary to quickly weigh options. With no reasonable options to navigate, he takes the best among poor alternatives. From there, he ignores all else and the movie viewer sees him “standing up to others” to take the correct course. But “standing up to others” was not what he was doing. He was doing as he was trained to do: aviate to his best ability and nothing else.

Everyone in business is inundated with directions from their proverbial flight towers and their crew while managing their customers’ expectations. Communicating and navigating surrounds much of what successful managers do. When it comes to safety, the airline approach to how managers and equipment operators need to respond in the field is worth considering. When a crisis hits, the person running the equipment needs to “aviate” everyone to safety above all other priorities. “Gut feel” is not what steers everyone to safety. Rather, the person aviating must command the latest and greatest software technology that provides the information needed to do so, at their fingertips.

Lesson 2: Learn to manage systems (without giving up your passion for flying).

Airlines have had to find the right balance between a pilot’s training to “take over” and physically fly a plane and the pilot’s training to manage the systems on board when things go awry. The balance point is still subject to debate but no one doubts that both skill sets are critical necessities. As automated systems and machinery take over more of what we do, knowing how to manage the system while not forgetting how to step in and take over the machinery utilizing your skills and knowledge will be critically important capabilities. Updated and upgraded safety training and skills training for the new automated world is a necessity. The real goal of course is new capabilities for learning. In this new world, classroom training often is less effective than in-the-moment coaching where and when the learning is needed. Mobile and social technologies are making these approaches a possibility.

Lesson 3: New technology is not a threat but rather the way we make progress.

Experience counts a tremendous amount and humans are wonderfully creative at finding solutions to problems we encounter. But we are also prone to errors in judgement. Uniquely human traits such as boredom and distraction on the one hand, and cognitive overload on the other, are all threats to safety. These are the cause of more workplace incidents and fatalities than all others. Whenever repetition is excessive on the one hand, or too many alternatives need to be weighed and calculated on the other, technology has a key role to play in guiding and making us safer.

We debate if self-driving cars and trucks are a safe idea. One generation from now children will ask what it was like when over 35,000 people died from over 5,000,000 traffic accidents every year (in the US alone).

Lesson 4: No more “man vs. machine”: think of “people commanding technology.”

The old battles of “man vs. machine” keep cropping up because they fascinate us but underneath they point to new found capabilities that we are only at the very beginning of exploiting for workplace safety. The broader public was first exposed to this capability with computer programs that could beat experts at  chess. Programs could beat chess masters through ham fisted calculations of all possible odds at each and every move. Next came Natural Language Processing programming to understand the intricacies of human language. IBM Watson was pitted against the best players of the popular television show Jeopardy. The computer won. Most recently, machine learning using artificial neural networking (a type of deep learning) was used to beat the world’s best players at the ancient Japanese board-game Go. Today it is advances in these combined capabilities such that the computers can win Texas Hold’em, a notable breakthrough because the machine learning accounts for situational probable errors in human judgement that the human competitor will make in deciding on the course of play.

These debates are entertaining displays of computing savvy but they should not confuse us into thinking the battle is somehow between us versus machines. In real business practice, put a well-practiced expert in a seat working together with these technologies and you have seemingly unbeatable odds to win at making complex equipment safer. .

Capabilities of experts with automation represent a wonderful opportunity to marry productivity (winning faster and better) with safety (never losing nor compromising), without ever pitting the two against each other. One of the key lessons learned from the 1980s calamities in automated aviation systems was that the technology of a cockpit had to be designed for the pilot to master and use. UX people in software quickly get this. Design is not an after the fact beautification process of an optimized machine; it is a prior-to-build design necessity to ensure that a pilot (or a plant manager or a business leader) can see, understand and command the wonders of technology in front of them.

cockpitLesson 5: Never forget culture: it rules everything.

The only unfortunate “take away” from the wonderful movie Sully is that it reinforces the lone cowboy ultimately in charge, who makes the call in the field and saves the day. It’s a modern day western, with a protagonist having to fend off the bureaucrats and regulators that later question every move.

The truth, as always, is a little more complex than Hollywood portrays. A more recent airline incident occurred in November 2016 resulting in the death of 71 of 77 passengers (including most of the Brazilian football team and coaching staff) due to “deficient planning” and “fuel exhaustion.” Although the final report is not yet out, this airline story also has the qualities of a gripping movie.

There is a frontline employee who would not agree to the flight plan and was overridden in her decision, then later went on the run out of fear of retribution from her superiors. There is an owner who has been criminally charged when it came to light he routinely compromised safety standard practices and influence peddled flight officials. Saddest of all, there is a captain and crew who lost their lives after debating and deciding not to stop for fuel mid-route as it would make them late, an ignorance that compounded itself at their destination where they “waited their turn” in a holding pattern despite being dangerously low on fuel. They could have landed at their destination but the only way to do so would have been to call for an emergency landing, raising difficult questions later. The plane crashed less than 10 nautical miles from its 1600 nautical mile flight destination after having sat in a holding pattern for 15 minutes.

Imagine the confluence of bad judgement that cascades downwards from the top to reach tragic ignorance of this proportion: the culture that says: “We can take short cuts on safety, to… We can’t be late, to… We can’t admit we are wrong, to tragically… We’d rather risk our lives than ask for help.” That is a human cultural system designed efficiently to fail. This also is a powerful lesson for business.

The person in charge of safety, who holds ultimate and immediate authority on “what happens next,” is the person in the role dutifully bound to report and act immediately on the critical information they have at hand to keep everyone safe. This power does not sit in rank, nor seniority; it does not have an office, nor a steward on its own; it is not a lone hero in the field. It sits in the hands of the leaders who insist upon it and build a culture that surrounds it. It sits in the hands of the planner far down the chain of command who can declare the flight plan will not work. It sits in the hands of each flight crew who insist on not taking unnecessary chances and who, when matters come to be grave, each can assert the authority to declare an emergency and not defer to rank nor seniority. Safety is every person’s responsibility and every person’s obligation to enforce.

This last lesson is most important as we venture into bold new frontiers of technology. We can all be heroes of safety. Automation, carefully designed, will certainly help us stay safer.  As we embrace all that the new world of technology offers, let’s learn and apply the hard lessons earned in aviation.



Dr. Gary Edwards  is a Data Science Advisor to Intelex Technologies. He is currently guiding a Data Science team on a mission to transform Environment, Health & Safety, and Quality (EHSQ) outcomes through predictive analytics focused on a decade’s worth of data gathered from over a 1000 companies worldwide.

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