In previous posts I have discussed the aspects of scan and dividing your attention, how these are done in Air Traffic Control, how businesses may be able to apply these techniques and why it is important to have a systematic approach to using these skills. If you have missed the previous instalments you can catch up by following this link Blog Intro
In this part I will introduce some further skills that link directly with the previous two, those are priorities, planning and workrate.
As an Air Traffic Controller working in the Visual Control Room (that’s the glass “goldfish bowl” at the top of a control tower) you are responsible for the safety of the aircraft manoeuvring on the ground and within the visual circuit (an imaginary racetrack in the sky), not to mention integrating aircraft that are arriving from radar approaches and departing the airfield. On top of that, you are also responsible for the control of vehicles moving on the airfield, plus numerous other activities. It is fair to say that it can be an extremely busy environment. To help with this there may be other controllers and assistants that have delegated responsibilities (see the previous post about trust and delegation!) but ultimately if you are the Aerodrome Controller (or ADC) you are in charge and the responsibility is yours.
The big black strip of tarmac that sits in the middle of your airfield is the runway and that is yours. You say who goes on it and who can’t. You decide who the next user is and these decisions are very much rule-based. However, despite these rules you must be able to dynamically plan, re-plan and prioritise effectively, you must have a workrate that is commensurate with the level of activity and you must be decisive, or else it can all go wrong very quickly! This is especially important should an emergency situation arise!
In the business world planning and prioritising also go hand-in-hand but you need to have an effective workrate…. That means doing the right stuff at the right time and adjusting your pace to meet demand.
In the earlier posts I discussed how scanning effectively enables an earlier warning of a problem and complexity and capacity affect how you work. Upping your workrate to respond to a situation and being able to apply good planning and prioritisation is just as crucial.
So back at the Air Traffic Control School I was doing pretty OK in my Visual Control Room simulations. However, as the simulator exercises progressed the more complicated they became. To give some background, the simulated airfield had some interesting features. One feature was that there were a set of traffic lights at either end of the runway that when set to green would allow vehicles to cross the runway and when set to red, allowed the runway to be sterile for aircraft to land. The second feature was that at the end of the runway was an “Arrestor Barrier”, designed to be raised to “collect” an aircraft should it hurtle off the end of the “black stuff”. Both the lights and the barrier was operated by the Aerodrome Controller… ie me!
To ensure that the controller physically checks the state of the runway before issuing any sort of clearance to an aircraft there is a lovely little phrase “Runway/Lights/Barrier” ie Check runway is clear, check traffic lights are red, check barrier is either up or down (dependent on the aircraft type) This phrase IS to be followed AND checks carried out BEFORE any clearance to use the runway is given.
In my simulation I had two Hawk (those aircraft currently used by the Red Arrows) flying around the visual circuit, this was no problem, spacing was good and the barrier configuration was easy because for the Hawk the barrier always stayed in the raised position.
Now things going swimmingly is always a good cue for your instructor to “up the ante” and he introduced an “Emergency Situation” in to the scenario… In this case a Tornado coming back to base with a fuel problem. Up went my workrate and priorities changed as I re-planned to bring the emergency aircraft in before the Hawks (which were flying around fine at this point) I orbited both Hawks, got my fire truck into position that had needed to cross the runway, checked my runway was clear, re-configured the barrier (which had to be down for Tornadoes) and gave the instruction for the “Emergency” Tornado to land… I remember feeling mightily pleased with myself just as the simulation was frozen and my instructor calmly asked in my headset “How safe is that?”
To my horror, after allowing the fire truck to cross the runway, I had not reselected the traffic lights into the “red” position before issuing the clearance to land… A fundamental safety error which meant my runway wasn’t sterile and was caused by me skipping the “Runway/Lights/Barrier” check. Luckily for me a simulated environment and a mistake that I never replicated in real life (probably due to the lesson learned in the simulator!)
The link between this anecdote and business is clear. In business you need to react to emergencies. It could be a product failure, machine failure, complaint, the list is endless… However, an effective workrate, coupled with prioritisation and re-planning enables you to react correctly and not forsake the basics.
A non-effective workrate manifests one of two ways. Either not reacting fast enough (or more importantly effectively enough) or reacting too quickly and making poor decisions based on knee-jerk reactions… ie skipping a basic checklist or process.
I’m sure we’ve all seen someone that we think is flustered or in a panic. What is their judgement like? Chances are you’ll agree it is probably poor. Likewise, we’ve all seen the person that is so laid back they are almost horizontal and you just want to put a firework underneath them to get them going!!
However, is this you? How are you perceived by others? One trick that I was taught whilst being an Air Traffic Controller was to stand back and view the situation from a wider perspective. If you are able to lift yourself that one level up when the emergency situation occurs, thinking becomes clearer and decisions become easier.
There is another tip that enables good workrate, prioritisation and planning to become second nature and it has been mentioned extensively throughout this blog series… That is training, practise and simulation!
When was the last time your practised a business emergency (and I don’t mean Fire Drill – although obviously that is important!) I refer to perhaps picking a Friday morning and telling the staff that the phones have all failed, or the internet had failed etc. How do they react? Do you have Business Continuity Plans in place? Are they practised? Do staff know what to do? What are your core business processes like? Will they stand up should a failure occur? What can you learn?
The essence of being a good Air Traffic Controlling team was practise, training and simulation. Skills such as workrate, planning and prioritisation became second-nature so, if the worst happened, we knew what to do. The same is true in business if people are trained effectively and practise drills they have much more capacity to cope with the demands of an unusual or emergency situation.
An investment of time practicing an emergency situation when times are good, could just prevent a whole load of problems for you and your business should the worst occur. More importantly, this investment will also develop skills in prioritisation, planning and workrate for you and your teams.
The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any agency of the UK Government. Examples given are from personal experience and should be viewed as only examples.Assumptions made within the analysis are not reflective of the position of any UK government entity. Graphics by www.flaticon.com