Flying Lessons

I’m told that Harrison Ford pilots his own airplane, and that he does so because he enjoys the discipline. I find this easy to believe.

Dreamstime - CessnaSome years ago, I was working in an area where it was useful to be able to fly in and out. Coincidently and conveniently, I had access to small aircraft and to pilot training. So, I became a private pilot. In doing so, I came to enjoy the sense of freedom and exhilaration that is flying; and I learned to respect the flying community’s disciplined culture of systematic actions, sustained over time. That culture makes flying a practical reality. Here are some examples:

Pre-flight preparations: One does not hop into an airplane, turn the key and head out for the wild blue. Instead, routes are charted, weather reports checked, fuel requirements calculated and aircraft weight / balance confirmed. Then the pilot conducts a walk-around inspection of the aircraft, using a check list. The aircraft doesn’t fly until the check lists have been completed.

: Rigorous programmed maintenance is mandatory, even for small, private aircraft. Maintenance is performed by specially trained and certified mechanics. Maintenance logs are kept rigorously.

Being current
: A pilot’s license to fly at any given time is subject to a number of requirements, including time since a medical examination (by an authorized flight surgeon), weather conditions, time since last flight, at least 24 hours since consumption of any alcohol, and so on.

The pay-off
: The disciplined approach works. Consider these U.S. statistics for 2010 [1]:

  • Commercial Airlines – zero fatalities, never mind flying six or seven miles above the ground at 500 miles an hour, 24 hours a day, in all but the worst weather.

  • General Aviation [2] 453 fatalities.

  • Automobiles – 32,885 fatalities.

Lessons for Manufacturers

Sustainable manufacturers — those that seriously intend to thrive in perpetuity [3]deliver the right products, on time, every time; while respecting the natural world, exploiting nobody and earning a profit by doing so. A culture of discipline — of systematic actions, sustained over time — is an integral aspect of that.

Here are some useful take-aways from aviation:

Nested walk-arounds
: Check list walk-around inspections work in manufacturing, as well as in aviation. My personal favorite is nested walk-arounds, where operators inspect the equipment they use; supervisors inspect the equipment within their purview, while also talking with the operators within their area; superintendents walk the floor and confirm with supervisors and with operators; and so on up to and including the plant manager. Each with their own check list.

Programmed maintenance
: To beg the obvious, the condition of the equipment is essential to delivering the right products, on time, every time. Programmed maintenance works for aircraft, where in-flight equipment malfunctions can be quite inconvenient. It works in manufacturing, and it reduces costs by doing so. Incidentally, aircraft maintenance relies rather heavily on remanufactured components.

Continuous training
: In the continuing quest for innovation and competitive advantage, manufacturing equipment and manufacturing methods are in a state of almost constant flux. The people involved need the on-going training necessary to take advantage of advancing methods and increasingly sophisticated equipment. Constructing and executing effective training programs is not a simple matter — give training a lot of thought at the highest levels in the organization.

A disciplined approach works in aviation. A disciplined approach also works in hospital operating rooms and in the Navy’s nuclear submarine fleet. Systematic actions, sustained over time: It works.

Thoughtful comments and experience reports are always appreciated. Click on the title of this post to open the comments section.

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…  Chuck Harrington

P.S. Visit Jera’s resource website for smaller manufacturers at:

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Photo: Dreamstime

[1] Official fatality statistics for 2010 are the latest I could find. I doubt that the 2011 figures are much different, since annual figures don’t usually change quickly, year to year.


[2] General aviation consists of two primary components: business aircraft and personal use aircraft. The business sector, generally speaking, employs professional pilots. Personal use means personal use.


[3] Werbach, Adam, Strategy for Sustainability, Harvard Business Press, Boston (2009), page 9