At some point in the careers of most airport managers, the job becomes less about technical expertise and more about leading people. There are plenty of books on leadership, business and management by more eloquent, intelligent and talented people than this author. But in recently building a new airport team and operating model in a challenging regional airport environment, three areas of focus came to the fore.
The first of these is operating discipline. This area is, by far, the most foundational. It takes significant work to set up but it has a long lasting effect.
Operating discipline isn't some militaristic objective with a view to everyone doing exactly the same thing, marching to the beat of a drum played by the manager. It should not be considered or implemented as a restrictive regime limiting the free will of frontline staff.
But we can't escape the fact that many aspects of airport operations, such as security, airside safety, customs, quarantine, etc. are highly regulated with prescribed standards. Furthermore, there can often be unforgiving consequences to errors either through regulatory sanctions or real-world impacts to people and property.
class="p1">So how do we create an environment that ensures what needs to happen happens and still lets people have some ability to exercise creativity and initiative?
Focus on Outcomes
It might seem too easy to simply say “set the destination, not the route”, but let’s consider this approach first.
The reason for anyone to do anything, in business, is to realise a desired outcome - to achieve an objective. That outcome could be to declare the runway serviceable, to confirm a passenger’s eligibility to enter your country or to have a clean floor.
By starting out from this position, you and your team members will share the “vision” of what the process is trying to achieve. This can be powerful; Especially if the subsequent process you design doesn’t result in the desired outcome or the variables outside of the original plan get in the way. Sharing the vision will help make the process more resilient and self-correcting, but more on that below.
The Verb in this Situation is Build
What you build is completely up to you but generally there would be documented descriptions of the work required - call them Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), Safe Work Method Statements (SWMS), Standard Work Practices (SWPs), it doesn’t matter what the name is.
As you build, keep in mind the old saying often attributed to Einstein, “everything should be as simple as possible, but not simpler”. Be critical of everything that goes into any work process. There is danger in too much, it will be too difficult, ignored or circumvented, and there is danger in too little, parts of the work missed altogether or the ramification of certain results not understood.
Sometimes there is no room for creativity. A manufacturer’s requirements on a pre-start test of a walk-through metal detector is a pretty specific process. If the equipment has to checked at 15 points with a test piece in a specific orientation, then that’s what has to happen. There is no way around that.
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While not advocating a specific approach to developing these work processes, it is strongly advised that whatever approach you take, it is consistent in itself. After all, that is our objective here.
If you do go down the SOP route, make up a standard template, use code references, date the procedure, use versioning, have standard pre-task activities, icons to highlight hazards and a standard approach to numbering steps. Set a culture of meeting expectations but set them with your team.
Here are some tips to help with the process:
- Talk to the people that do the job - Hopefully, those in your team currently doing the work know how it is done, collectively, at least. They are the best source of information for what you want to set as the documented process.
- Observe the work - Sometimes what people say they do and what they actually do is different. This is not necessarily a comment on their honesty but often the best operators can’t articulate what they do.
- Manufacturers’ requirements - When dealing with equipment, it is best to listen to the people that designed and built it.
- Risk-based approach - Consider conducting a risk assessment such as a Job Safety (or Step) Analysis.
Adding in the Airport People Power
Obviously, simply having a documented process is not going to result in predictable outcomes on its own. Training in the process will be required as will time to hone skills and develop experience. Let’s save this for a future article.
Try as you might, you won’t get everything right the first time. Even if you did, the environment might change or new tools become available. This is where a set of continuous improvement processes are required.
The first practical process to consider is how are corrections or improvements documented for changes to be made. There is probably nothing easier than using a red pen, literally. Have a supply of red pens handy and whenever anybody identifies an issue with a process, ask them to write the details down on a copy of the process using red pen and give it to the person responsible for making changes.
In addition to people learning on the job, it is also good to bring in fresh eyes on a regular basis. Observations of the work in action are invaluable but don’t focus just on adherence to the process. Have observers also consider the objective of the process too. It might be that circumstances have changed and what used to produce the outcome you wanted, isn’t working anymore.
Discipline requires effort - both to build and to maintain. When so much is at stake, safety, security and compliance, we can’t afford to lose it.
In my next article, we will explore the development of airport people beyond the basics, on-the-job training and experience. In the mean time, we are also interested in hearing about our readers experiences, please leave a comment or feedback below.