Lessons from a Departing DOM
By Pete Laitinen
All good things must come to an end. For me the end was in September. After 28 years in the industry as an aircraft mechanic (the new guys are all technicians now), the last 20 of them as a DOM, I loaded up my toolbox and drove away from the maintenance hangar bay for good. Don’t cry for me though — I jumped at an opportunity to fly full time and fulfill the original passion that got me interested in aviation three decades ago. After all, life is too short to spend it all on just one career. I will be forever grateful for those well-polished tools that paid for the babies, homes and cars. I will not miss the all nighters, the ty-wrap slices on the forearms, or the constant pressure to cut corners, to speed up and “just sign it off.”
I have been told that in addition to formal training, we should always learn from our mistakes. That may be true, but if any fool can learn from his mistakes, a wise man should be able to learn from the mistakes of others. In that light, I have accumulated several decades of mistakes that have taught me valuable lessons. For those who are continuing on in this profession who consider themselves wise, I offer the following principles for consideration. All are based on my lessons learned.
Principle #1: If you don’t have to make a decision today, don’t make it. If you don’t have to spend a dollar today, don’t spend one. If you are pressured to do either, the best answer is nearly always “NO.”
On the surface, this looks like an excuse for procrastination or neglect. However, I have learned through making hasty decisions that proved to be faulty that often the heat of the moment, the passion, emotion or ignorance prevents one from making good, sound decisions that provide the best long-term solutions. There is a reason vacation timeshares and plastic kitchen storage item sales are done in an immediate, high-pressure setting. The effort is to force a decision without providing enough time, information or deliberation to permit the prospect to make a sound, circumspect decision. As a maintenance manager, one is frequently faced with decisions worth tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars. Those decisions are lucrative and often immersed in pressure from owners, vendors, upper managers, customers, federal inspectors and shareholders. Often the easiest solution is not the best, or the wisest solution is not the least expensive, especially short term. The best way to navigate these minefields is with clear, logical and sound judgment, which does not occur in the moment of crisis.
Instead, the wise manager will spend a considerable amount of time planning and forecasting all potential considerations. He or she should have contingency plans in place for all reasonable scenarios. By careful planning, diligent research, and realistic scheduling of known future events, you can provide yourself with options that present the best possible outcomes. In the event of an unplanned crisis or unscheduled event, it is important to take time to separate from the heat of the battle to collect yourself. Compare the previously planned strategies and priorities to the crisis situation and look for consistent solutions there first. A phone call or a signature will soon mobilize workers and resources swiftly to resolve whatever it is soon enough, but until then one needs to first make sure to point everyone in the right direction. I often use the 24-hour rule; that is, do not make any major decisions until at least 24 hours have passed. By then the research will be completed, the resources analyzed and organized, the priorities identified, and one’s mentors and wise counselors consulted repeatedly. One will have eaten, slept and showered, and be in the best frame of mind to make the best (even it it’s not the most popular) decision.
Principle #2 Multitasking is for those who can’t determine their priorities.
My college president George Sweeting used to often exhort us with: “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” Although not referring specifically to aircraft maintenance management, the principle is universally applicable as a reminder that we only have so much time, and only so many resources, and that while we always have time and money for what we do first, we often may not have enough to do it all. I have found others offering conflicting advice such as do the easy things first, do the least enjoyable things first, do the least costly things first, etc.
However, the best managers never lose sight of their priorities and orient themselves accordingly. Trying to do everything all at once or trying to juggle conflicting priorities is a recipe for disaster or burnout. Often the tasks done simultaneously are not done with the excellence or precision of tasks done individually and with complete focus. What is the point of doing a lot of half-effort jobs? When we use the term “human factors” in safety classes, often the simple fact is that someone was distracted by trying to do too much all at once and lost sight of what’s most important.
The best manager are not the ones who say “yes” to everything and try and figure out how to get it done, but those who can organize and prioritize their challenges in light of a larger perspective, even if it means saying “no” to some very good, worthwhile and profitable choices. This principle, when correctly applied, will make the practice of Principle No. 1 a lot easier, too.
Principle #3 If your people are not living up to your expectations, you must either change your people or your expectations.
This principle applies most often to those who are promoted from the floor to the office, as I was. The “Peter Principle” states that people will rise to their own level of incompetence. In other words, people who are effective and promoted based upon their merit eventually reach a level where they are no longer able to perform well, at which point their merit promotions will cease. My principle addresses this from another perspective.
I was the best lead on the floor, so I was promoted to manager. Unfortunately, it took a while for me to realize that just because I could do a job in a certain number of man hours, it was not reasonable for me to expect the rest of the guys to all of a sudden be able to do the same. The shop had previously been able to quote a job based upon my performance, and when I met the target we were profitable. However, when I was no longer on the floor doing the jobs, I had to adjust the quotes I was now doing to reflect the reasonable expectation of the guys who were left on the floor, regardless of how efficiently I was able to do that job.
I was frustrated when I first started managing people when I would quote a job and my guys would blow the quote out of the water. However, a wise counselor pointed out to me that the guys were doing their same level of work as usual, and that regardless of the training, incentives and discipline I applied, there was probably a point where I would always be more productive for one reason or another, which was exactly why I was promoted and not them. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong or deficient with your crew, but one must consider their limitations and their reasonable expectation of productivity and manage that, not drive them to meet your particular level of skills and abilities. They will only be who they are, so endeavor to manage that well. Once I began analyzing the performance of their work on the shop floor and began quoting based upon that reality, things went a lot better for everyone.
Now, if your expectations are reasonable for your workers, and there are still those who still do not live up to them, you must make the most devastating decision a manager has to make: termination. I do not know of anyone outside of a certain TV personality who actually likes firing people. However, there is a certain percentage or segment of workers who will not fit into one’s plans, no matter what. When you are reviewing resumes and see the guy who has had seven jobs in eight years, there is a reason for that. When the guy comments about how screwed up a former employer was, while you hold that employer’s business in high regard, look out. When a guy had a life-altering crisis occur recently, an unexpected death, a substance abuse problem, financial issues or the like, these often completely alter their personality and affect their job performance. These may degrade their capability to manage interpersonal relationships and may cause a hostile work environment for everyone. There are also those who simply won’t get on board with your plans, for whatever the reason. In these cases, sometimes your best and final solution may be termination of that employee. Do your homework, document everything, get lots of counseling yourself, and exercise all these principles prior to conducting any action.
Principle #4 You get what you reward.
As a manager, your job is to get the most production out of your resources. When it comes to people, your best motivation is reward. However, even in the absence of a specific prize or incentive, one still subtly provides rewards for behavior whether they realize it or not. Take for example if one employee, Joe, satisfactorily completes a task in four hours and another, Bob, takes six hours for the same job. One should consider that by compensating the guys equally, Bob gets rewarded for inferior work. Even worse, if one assigns Joe more tasks to do when he finishes early so that both he and Bob “work” the same amount of time, not only does one reward Bob, they actually punish Joe for being a better worker. However, if Bob is simply punished for being slower than Joe, that usually results in a decline in his morale as well as a further decline in performance. The best motivation to increase the performance of both workers is to reward the desired production. If Joe finishes early, he gets a bonus, time off, or some other desirable incentive. If properly presented, the other workers will notice and try to earn the same rewards.
From personal experience, it only takes once or twice of letting Joe go home early with full pay while Bob lags behind finishing up before Bob buys into the system and motivates himself to improve productivity. Of course, as a manager your job is to be diligent and assure corners that reduce quality or safety aren’t cut. However, there are many other ways to work more efficiently that lots of workers fail to utilize.
Pay close attention to the behavior you tolerate. Tolerance equates to rewarding. If your shop is in chaos, you must be rewarding crisis management. If your employees are abusive, profane and unprofessional, you are probably rewarding those behaviors without realizing it. Some union rules and certain traditional expectations may often limit the manager’s ability to exercise this principle, but the best creative managers should find ways to reward their best employees consistently.
Principle #5 Don’t pee in the river. Don’t drink from the river either; there may be someone upstream who is peeing in the river.
I learned this unusual philosophy in high school shop class of all places. I never appreciated it other than for its shock value until I got into management and realized the truth it represents. The concept is that we operate in a closed environment and our actions affect the world around us; other’s actions can affect us if we make ourselves vulnerable. As an application, one must maintain his or her integrity above all else. By pencil-whipping documents, gouging customers and simply not being honest in your business dealings or relationships, you are “peeing in the river.” Of course, you are probably surrounded by colleagues who are all peeing in the river, too, so your best option is not to drink from the river but maintain your personal integrity.
Your reputation is what others think of you. That is the most valuable asset and resource one owns. Your integrity is who you are when nobody is looking or will ever find out. If those two match, you will be able to transit the career field of your choice successfully. If not, you risk your reputation being taken from you — and in a small world like aviation, people will know of you long before they ever meet you, especially when you start moving up the river. Unfortunately, this principle comes with an argument from silence because one will never know the opportunities they missed by messing with the river.
I often wondered what the day would look like when I no longer maintained aircraft for a living. It never quite looked like this. I am fortunate to have been able to get paid well for doing my hobby every day and then going home for supper. I hope to be able to maintain my certificates for the future, but if not, at least I got to go out on my own terms. I still can’t believe they want to pay me all this money to fly a brand new aircraft. Aviation sure is a great life, isn’t it?
Pete Laitinen holds an A&P/IA, commercial/instrument airplane/helicopter pilot certificate with 4,000 hours rotorcraft. Laitinen has been turning wrenches since 1983. In 1992, he was the youngest IA in the Dallas FSDO. He has worked on a variety of aircraft from ultralights to Gulfstreams and helicopters. Most recently he spent 13 years as DOM and chief inspector for a Michigan-based helicopter operator/service center with Part 133, 135 and 145 certificates. Paitinen recently gave up a desk with a view of the shop floor for an IFR glass cockpit — he is currently lead pilot on an EMS contract flying EC135s.