A Habit is a Hard Thing to Break

Submitted by Michael France, NATA Director of Safety and Training

I was browsing through news headlines the other day and this one caught my eye:

Unattended Helicopter Left Running Kills Pilot

According to the story, the pilot exited the aircraft with the engine running and rotors turning to perform a “fluid check.” The helicopter became airborne, crashed and the pilot was struck and killed by the rotors. A terrible situation and my thoughts go out to the pilot’s family and friends.

It seems far too often that we are faced with incidents and accidents where our first reaction is “what were they thinking!” Too many times the answer is, someone was looking for a short-cut, a way to save a bit of time in a busy schedule (please note I am not saying that this was the case in the incident above, the fact is, I don’t know the facts of that case). We humans are always looking for more efficient ways to accomplish tasks, both consciously and unconsciously and too frequently if a situation seems to offer reasonable risk, we deviate from the way “it should be done” and take a shortcut. Have you ever been late for work and figured the risk was low enough so you drove a few miles per hour over the speed limit (or a few MPH over the amount you usually exceed the speed limit!)? How, in a general aviation ground handling environment do we battle this human tendency?

The truth is, like many risks, we can likely never completely eliminate it. What we can do is help use another human trait to our advantage, the habit. It turns out, that if we do something a certain way enough times we will experience negative feelings if we try to accomplish the same thing in a different way. Ever changed part of your daily routine and thought to yourself “well this just doesn’t feel right?” Those negative feelings can be used to help prevent your team from taking shortcuts, especially the ones we sometimes take unconsciously! If we establish a strong habit on the way a specific task is to be accomplished, the moment we begin to vary from that routine, intentionally or unintentionally, our minds bring that deviation to our attention through negative feelings.  Now, this doesn’t mean we will automatically make the right decision to reject the shortcut and stick to procedure, but it is another tool to help tilt the scale in that direction. This idea of creating a strong habit in the way we do things is part of the reason why we establish standard procedures. We make an informed decision based upon a sound risk analysis on how we want a task completed, and then we practice it over and over until it becomes habit.

To help in this process here are two important tips:

  • Involve your team in the standard setting process! They may have points to consider that may not have ever occurred to you. Also, people are far more likely to buy into whatever decision you make on how a task should be completed if they feel their thoughts were heard and considered.
  • Take the time to catch your team doing it right! It is easy to point out when we see someone make a mistake and vary from procedure, but I challenge you to find times where you can call your team members out for doing something the right way, especially in challenging conditions. Positive reinforcement can help cement a habit far faster than negative.

When you have a few moments, check out our Operational Best Practices, developed by the NATA Safety 1st Committee. They can be a great tool in helping to build your own standardized operational procedures.

Visit or return to NATA website: http://www.nata.aero

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