Best Friends or Worst Enemies?

The Failure of Crew Resource Management (CRM) – Part II

Part II: An Evidence-Based Approach to Analyzing Failures of CRM

This is Part II in a series of blog posts on “The Failure of Crew Resource Management.” Click here to read Part I.

Continuing on my previous post, I looked into the surprisingly vast body of academic research on Crew Resource Management (CRM), and settled on two research works.

I’d first like to examine the work of J. Richard Hackman, a leading organizational psychologist and mentor to my own professor (Dr. Adam M. Grant). Dr. Hackman “spent a decade of his career studying how to improve the effectiveness of airline crews.” Below is an Harvard Business Review interview with Dr. Hackman entitled “Why Teams Don’t Work,” along with a link to his namesake publication.

Why Teams Don’t Work – J. Richard Hackman, Harvard University

Harvard Business Review interview conducted by senior editor Diane Coutu: http://www.atc2u.com/old/downloads/eddy/New%20Folder/WhyTeams%20Dont%20Work.pdf

Original Work: http://econ.au.dk/fileadmin/Economics_Business/Currently/Events/PhDFinance/Kauttu_Why-Teams-Dont-Work-by-J.-Richard-Hackman.pdf

Dr. Hackman’s research is really interesting – I remember learning about his Job Characteristics Theory in MGMT104: Human Resources Management (Fall 2013). I didn’t realize that he had spent so much time researching airline crew effectiveness. In particular, I found it really fascinating that two pilots will only work together as a team every 5.6 years. On one hand, this completely makes sense – in the race for pure efficiency and cost savings, airlines need to have their pilots be transferable to different routes and aircraft at a moment’s notice. A good example of an airline that really buys into this mentality is Emirates – I recall watching a documentary about their new hub airport in Dubai, where everything is timed to the second to ensure that unnecessary costs are not incurred. I wonder, though, if this drive for financial efficiency is implicitly exposing the airline to safety risks – and not the usual physical/engineering risks afflicting airlines, but rather risks related to the way their crews function together. Dr. Hackman would certainly say that the airline crews need to stay together to achieve the best performance as a team. At the same time, a good team requires a strong leader to ensure that group members don’t get complacent. Finding that balance between “individual autonomy and collective action” is especially crucial for pilots – and in the case of Air France 447, the individual decision of one co-pilot was at complete odds with the actions of the other co-pilot and the captain.

The Hackman paper is great context for the next reading, which is written by Robert C. Ginnett, a former Senior Fellow at the Colorado-based Center for Creative Leadership. Dr. Ginnett wrote a chapter entitled “Crews as Groups: Their Formation and Their Leadership” for the academic publication Cockpit Resource Management (Wiener, Kanki, Helmreich, 1993).

Crews as Groups: Their Formation and Their Leadership – Robert C. Ginnett (LinkedIn)

“Cockpit Resource Management (1993), Chapter 3: http://isites.harvard.edu/fs/docs/icb.topic626703.files/01_Ginnett_1993.pdf

One of the examples given in the reading involved United Airlines Flight 173, a DC-8 aircraft that crashed in 1978. I shared this with my grandfather, who worked on this type of aircraft in the 1970s and recalls the incident. He was able to shed some technical insight on the crash – and in particular, he noted that many of the problem with the DC-8 aircraft (including a conditionally-faulty fuel gauge) were widely known by ground engineers but largely ignored by pilots. All in all, it was the failure of the crew to stay cognizant of, prevent, and then respond to the technical fault that caused the ultimate breakdown in teamwork and resulting crash. What happened 31 years later with AF447 is almost identical.

This is Part II in a series of blog posts on “The Failure of Crew Resource Management.” Click here to read Part III. 

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