The parallels of Aviation advances in teamwork with UK Construction

“The moment a flock of Canada geese hit the aircraft and we were forced to land US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River, on January 15, 2009, I knew that my life would change forever…” These are the opening lines in the foreword to a fascinating book entitled ‘Beyond the Checklist – What else health care can learn from aviation teamwork and safety’. Captain Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger introduces the book and its concepts of crew resource management (CRM) and its application to the health care sector. What is also obvious when reading this book are the parallels in the teamwork dynamics within aviation, healthcare (the intended topic) and the UK construction sector.

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The authors of the book point out that it was a taught approach to teamwork that enabled the crew, which included pilot, first officer and three flight attendants, to land on the Hudson River that frigid January day and then safely evacuate 150 passengers without a life-threatening injury or fatality. There was a method behind this “miracle”, largely as a result of changes to aviation industry practices relating to teamwork, communication and co-operation among all members of the crew, regardless of rank or job responsibility.

Captain Sullenberger continues, “ Not long ago, there were captains in our cockpit who acted like gods… you questioned the captain’s authority at your own peril.” I think that we can all recall sites where the same is true of site managers or agents and the tense atmosphere that often results. Construction still largely remains the domain of testosterone and getting the job done, and I know best how that’s going to be done! The result is, that according to industry statistics this approach delivers 50% of projects land on time and 50% on budget (UK Industry performance report produced by the department for business, innovation and skills).

Aviation is now heralded as the safest form of transport, it is now considerably safer to fly in an airplane at 36,000 feet than drive a car at sea level. This has not always been the case and on December 29, 1972 eastern Airlines Flight 401 carrying 176 passengers and crew on board crashed resulting in 101 fatalities due to a burned out landing gear light. The crew inadvertently put the plane into a very slow shallow decent and eventually crashed in the Florida Everglades. This was despite air traffic controllers recognizing that the plane was going to hit the ground but only vaguely asking, “How’s it goin’ out there, Eastern?” The same question could be asked of the trades working on sites where they know that things are not progressing as they should but are unable to make changes to affect the outcome.

The advances in aviation safety has taken place over many years and decades and beyond the checklist argues that CRM has played an integral part in this. It considers the major building blocks and its application to healthcare but I wonder whether the same could be applied to construction. I have paraphrased these concepts outlined in the book and, although there is still much to be done to convert aviation CRM to better construction team performance I feel there may be something in it…

  • The captain is not king – and neither is the site manager?
  • Knowing the team – how many names of the people on site do we know?
  • Conducting appropriate briefings – concise and inclusive or none at all?
  • Establish a common language – Is that your riser 6 which is our riser 3 or the other one?
  • Inviting participation – I would but we haven’t procured them yet and you just tell them where to go and they get on with it anyway!
  • Manage the workload – I’m sure that we can fit that in as well…
  • Admitting error and asking for help – or find someone to blame
  • Training and recurrent training – commonplace now in health & safety but little else

As always perhaps the biggest barrier to implementing a teamworking programme for construction will be money and time it takes to implement. It is worth considering however that construction projects have delivered 50% of projects on time and budget for years now with little sign of improvement. Without doing something different it is unlikely to change the opportunity for recouping any initial outlay is considerable.

BIM is a recent addition, and seen by some, as the saviour of the construction sector and no doubt it will help. Without effective teamwork however technology alone will never be the complete solution. To finish on a final quote on technology, “in terms of navigational errors, automation enables pilots to make huge navigational errors very precisely.”