Getting to the Heart of the Maintenance Business

Let’s face it — aircraft maintenance is serious business. Aside from the constant pressures to please clients and satisfy bosses, aircraft maintenance professionals have the tremendous responsibility of keeping planes and people safe. Add abundant regulatory oversight, OEM mandates and ever-changing technology, and it’s easy to see that DOMs work in a high-stress environment.

Striking the optimal balance between good business practices and regulatory requirements is a delicate juggling act. Knowing how to do it well can spell the difference between a successful maintenance operation and one that just limps along or eventually shuts its doors. That’s especially true in tough economic times when the margin for error is razor thin. In dealing with that challenge, management has a tendency to become more vigilant, demand more of employees and tighten up on anything that can save a dollar and still stay on the safe side of regulations.

If your main goal is survival, that kind of approach might make sense. However, you have to rely on something more if you want to soar to the top of the industry and extend the distance between you and the competition. You need to get the “heart” of the maintenance business and understand how to tap into the core of what makes people go above and beyond to do their best work.

Sure, you might be thinking, that’s why we keep pushing people to dig deeper and work smarter. Sounds logical, but the truth is that people don’t like being “pushed.” What’s more, it’s not nearly as effective as “engaging” them in a way that gets them tuned in, turned on and eager to go the extra mile — not just because that’s what management EXPECTS them to do, but because that’s what they WANT to do.

genuine engagement

It’s no secret that some DOMs are better at working with planes than people. A first-rate manager’s toolbox isn’t complete if it only contains the tools for repairing aircraft. An effective leader needs to know how to inspire and engage workers, not prod and push them. Some managers try to do that with pep talks and incentives, but those are short-term solutions that only scratch the surface of what’s possible with a fully-engaged workforce.

The difference starts with an understanding of what genuine engagement looks like. The definition created by the Conference Board hits the mark pretty well. It defines employee engagement as “a heightened emotional connection that employees feel for their organization that influences them to exert greater discretionary effort to their work.”

The two key phrases in that definition are “heightened emotional connection” and “greater discretionary effort.” In the end, you can’t have one without the other — at least not on a sustained basis. How do we create an effective emotional connection? Fear of losing a job clearly is an emotional trigger, but fear and anxiety will eventually burn people out and it rarely produces the best results.

Humans being

Tapping into a positive emotional response starts with a basic understanding of two unique qualities that make human beings different from all other creatures.

We’ve all heard the phrase “free as a bird.” A bird flying around might appear free to do whatever it pleases, but birds are only “free” to do what they are programmed to do. They are programmed to fly, eat bugs and seeds, build nests, lay eggs and bring baby birds into the world. (You could argue that they are also programmed to dump on your car right after you get it washed, but that’s probably pushing it a bit.) The bottom line is that all animals operate from a program with little choice about what they do. People, on the other hand, have the uniquely human gift of free will. Not only do they have a choice in what they do, they actually can’t function at their best if they aren’t allowed to use that innate ability. 

The second quality that’s unique to human beings is imagination. Unlike animals, people can imagine and conceive of things that do not occur in the natural world. They can envision building magnificent structures, writing great novels, and even flying like a bird. Imagination is the ultimate source of innovation. People can do those things not because they are more intelligent than animals, but because they can imagine. Then they can use their free will to operate outside “animal programming” and bring the things they imagine into existence.

What do imagination and free will have to do with a world-class aircraft maintenance operation? Plenty. In the end, anything we do in the workplace to undermine those uniquely-human qualities cuts at the heart of what encourages and enables people to go above and beyond and perform exceptional feats. It is crucial to understand that no amount of discipline and direction in an organization can surpass the motivation to excel that comes from the ability and desire that people have to imagine and create.

That’s all good and well, but if everyone is out using their imagination and free will to do whatever they please, how do you maintain discipline and keep things from flying out of control? After all, aircraft maintenance is a highly-regulated business, and without the proper structure and regulations in place, the results could be disastrous.  

By themselves, imagination and free will are not enough to bring out the best in people or organizations. Besides being driven by those uniquely-human forces, employees also want to want some sense of order and predictability in their lives. In the workplace, it’s essential to have order and alignment if you want to get anything done successfully as a team. Employees understand that. In fact, they expect it.

How do freedom and control work together?

Let’s compare a human being to an aircraft. Engines propel the plane forward and up in the air. With people, that’s imagination and free will — the part that produces innovation and the desire to excel. Then we need stabilizers so the plane doesn’t wobble out of control. Think of that as security and self-esteem for people. Without that kind of stability, employees get “wobbly,” too. The third piece is the guidance system. Just like planes, people need a clear sense of direction if they’re going to head in the right direction and reach the desired destination. For humans, those directional requirements are responsibility and accountability. People need to be clear about what they’re responsible for, and to be held accountable for doing it.

When all three dimensions — imagination and free will, security and self-esteem, and responsibility and accountability — come together in perfect balance, you have a “human aircraft” that can soar to great heights and produce extraordinary results. 

The key to making it all come together is understanding that people need to have a say in systems design and operation. There’s a misconception that employees complain about working in an environment that’s driven by “command and control.” In truth, people hate the command part but want and expect control. When done right, control is just another word for predictability. People just don’t want to work for a parent or a drill instructor and have those controls imposed on them all the time.

The principles of the “human aircraft” can be applied in just about every aspect of people management. One example is how to get employees engaged in continuous improvement efforts. Most organizations say they are eager to get employee input on how to do things better. If you ask employees why they don’t come forward with those ideas, you get responses like, “No one really cares for my opinion,” “It won’t make much difference,” “I might get in trouble,” “It’s not my job,” “I’m not sure how to do it,” “The boss wants me to stick to getting the job done,” and so on.

Overcoming those barriers and getting employees to step up and offer new ideas starts with making improvement part of the day-to-day operating culture. It has to be a true system, not a one-off program. It needs to be part of what people eat, sleep and breathe daily. It takes a whole different mindset for managers and supervisors, along with a new set of skills and expectations in the way they manage employees. Then they need the right tools and procedures to make it easy for people to bring those ideas to the table, not just once in a while, but on a systematic and continuous basis.

However that system is designed, its power comes back to the basic principles of the “human aircraft.” In particular, the system has to light the fuse of imagination and free will — those uniquely-human gifts that are just waiting to take flight when people are encouraged and supported in doing what it takes to build a winning team.

Les Landes is president of Landes & Associates. The firm provides management consulting services in the areas of organizational communication, employee engagement, marketing, public relations and continuous improvement systems. They are the creators of the “ImaginAction System,” a tool for getting employees engaged in systematic continuous improvement. Landes is the author of multiple articles, as well as a recently published book, “Getting to the Heart of Employee Engagement.”

Les Landes, Landes & Associates, St. Louis, MO - - 314 664-6497

About D.O.M. Magazine

D.O.M. magazine is the premier magazine for aviation maintenance management professionals. Its management-focused editorial provides information maintenance managers need and want including business best practices, professional development, regulatory, quality management, legal issues and more. The digital version of D.O.M. magazine is available for free on all devices (iOS, Android, and Amazon Kindle).

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