The Red Queen

The ‘Red Queen’ hypothesis is a concept proposed by Leigh Van Valen, an evolutionary biologist from the University of Chicago. The ‘Red Queen’ gets its origins from Louis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass,” the sequel to “Alice in Wonderland.” The ‘Red Queen’ stated that she had to run faster and faster just to keep up. Standing still is not an option. This explains that we must continually evolve and that if we fail to evolve we will become extinct. Although attributable to Charles Darwin, he did not coin the phrase “survival of the fittest.”  If  survival of the fittest were true, we would be dodging dinosaurs on our way to work. What he did refer to was a process called natural selection and is a preferred term by modern biologists. Natural selection states that we must adapt to survive. What does this have to do with aircraft maintenance management? A lot.

Running faster

Let’s use that same concept and apply it to what we do. Just look at the environment that surrounds us. Aviation has changed (evolved) and continues to change almost daily. We as technicians must learn new processes and techniques just to stay abreast of all the changes in aviation. There is more and more information coming at us constantly. We are living the ‘Red Queen’ hypothesis. 

We have to change, and processes to accommodate the aviation evolution must also change. Change that is a benefit is an improvement and since we are doing it all the time it is continuous improvement. Continuous improvement is the basis for quality systems. 

Thus, we are part of the quality systems. I might add that the maintenance technician is the most important part of the quality process because they put the quality into the product — not the inspectors, not QC, not supervisors or managers — they do it. Because of that, they not only have to keep up with technological advances but also process improvements and they have to keep themselves mentally attuned to what can impact their job both negatively and positively. They have to learn more and more just to maintain their status. They have to go a little bit faster to get ahead and it never ends.

Continuous improvement and planning

Note that I have been writing in the third person, not my normal first-person perspective. I did this intentionally because the people with their hands on the subject, the maintenance technicians, are the ones with the control for quality. The rest are supporting cast members. I forget who said it, but if you aren’t a part of quality or supporting those who are, then your job is superfluous.

We have to continuously improve continuously. I know that sounds dumb but continuous improvement is cyclical and the conventional concept of the improvement cycle is PDCA, or Plan, Do, Check, Act. It was first used by Walter Shewhart but is attributable to his successor, W. Edwards Deming, who popularized the concept. The PDCA cycle is something we do all the time but I would not go so far as to say it is common sense because it takes effort to maintain the momentum.  The PDCA is a simple concept: Plan what you want to do, Do what you plan, Check to assure that what you planned is what you wanted, Act at implementing and solidifying the plan. Then we start all over again and start planning to improve what you put in place.

Planning: that is simple, right? Throw out some orders and see if anything sticks. “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” John Steinbeck’s adaptation of a phrase in the Robert Burns poem “To a Mouse” tells us that even when we plan, we should have contingency plans just in case. But without any plan whatsoever, we will always go awry. Ready, shoot, aim is not a good course of action.  We need planning out of necessity; even if it is imperfect, it lays down a framework to commence. 

Where do you start? Many plans have gone right into deciding what they want or where they want to be and never assess where they are. Just like planning a trip, unless you have a point of origin how do you define your mode of transportation to get to your destination? Planning first involves determining where you are.  We will always have a point A to B thing; it is never just a point B. Keep in mind that continuous improvement is a journey with an origin on one side and a destination on the other side. Then the destination will turn into the origin of the next journey. The importance of determining your origin is to see how far you are from the destination and can better assess the resources needed to attain the destination. It also gives you a point of reference on your progress. You don’t know how far you have traveled if you don’t know where you started. 

Determine a destination

The next step in planning is to determine where you want to be. Is this destination a pie-in-the-sky wish or a viable destination? Only you can determine this. Do you have or can you get the resources needed and will the benefit outweigh the effort? For large projects, milestones will need to be established as an in-process validation/verification that you are on track. Ah, that’s what those mile markers are for! This will become important when you get to the stage where you have to check the status of your plan. The milestones will be used to check your progress and where you set out to achieve. As you move through the process you will most likely be adjusting your milestones and, in some cases, your destination. As you do this you should also be conducting a risk/reward analysis to the newly-adjusted milestones and destination to determine if it is still viable.  Another path may need to be taken. As your mother told you, haste does make waste.

In the mid-1800s, the Donner party wanted to get to California as soon as possible so they took a newly discovered route. What the Donner party failed to consider was the consequences of following the new but very treacherous route as compared to the safer but longer southern route. Delays were incurred because they failed to take into account the constraints in the new route and wound up snow bound in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Of the 87 original members, only 47 survived to make it to California. They paid the price because they didn’t want to wait for spring and they didn’t want to take the longer southern route. How the 47 survived without food was later revealed and is the subject of another story.

Planning is crucial and if you don’t consider the constraints, obstacles and diversions it can have disastrous results.  If you are planning a trip from New York to Seattle, the “in-process” portion is what can make it complicated or simple.  If you are flying, there are a few choices and milestones will be getting to the airport in New York in enough time so you arrive in Seattle when you want. If you want to be in Seattle at 6 p.m., you can’t take a 5 p.m. flight out of New York. If you are driving the in-process is more complicated. A one-day trip is now a three-day trip and additional milestones need to be created. We can all figure this out easily in planning a trip but when it comes to business planning, this somehow all gets thrown out the window. 

The arrow diagram

There are a number of ways of planning this and most have their origins in the arrow diagram. When you mark your route on a map you are essentially drawing an arrow diagram. Take the map out of the equation and on one side of the paper you have your origin, and the other side is your destination with a bunch of things to see and do along the way and places to visit. But you know you have to be in Chicago before Boise and one member of your party is leaving you in Cleveland to go to Madison, WI, then meet you in Chicago.  You have things that will be sequential and some things that are concurrent, but you start with all this upfront. 

You do the same with a project by starting with a pile of things that need to be done: origin, destination, in-process actions, milestones, etc.  The diagram can show your path from beginning (origin) to completion (destination). It will display what is sequential and forces you to determine what must happen before moving to the next task, what will happen next and what can occur at the same time.  Then start arranging them in order; typically time flows from left to right or top to bottom. Sticky notes work best for this as you will be moving things around. 

Construction of the arrow diagram for the New York to Seattle trip is pretty straightforward. Doing the same for complex processes is a large task. It has its benefits but there are also problem situations, shortening project times and the subsequent problems.  There are also some interesting variations: Activity Network Diagrams (AND) for scheduling sequential and simultaneous tasks, Critical Path Method (CPM) adds task times, and Program Evaluation and Review Technique (PERT) adds another dimension by determining task times if things go perfectly, if things go wrong and if things go as expected.

Another part of this process should be contingency planning: the “what if?” portion. What should be done if the project cost skyrockets out of control? Should there be a predetermined cut-off point? Just as aircraft and ships have a point of no return, you should plan a set point where you will not continue the project, where the destination will have to be abandoned — at least temporarily. What about a plan B in case plan A does not go as planned? These are just some of the consideration needed for effective planning.  The Donner party didn’t provide for contingency planning.  They did not choose wisely.

The formula is simple; just like losing weight: eat less, exercise more. The journey is the difficult portion, determining how you get there. Be realistic. You are not going to lose 30 pounds next week, but you can in 30 weeks.

As the Red Queen said, she had to run faster and faster just to keep up. You still have to pace yourself.  The fastest person doesn’t always win the race. When chased by a bear you don’t have to be faster than the bear — just faster then the other guy. Quality is not achieved by accident; it takes planned and practiced effort. 

Patrick Kinane joined the Air Force after high school and has worked in aviation since 1964. Kinane is a certified A&P with Inspection Authorization and also holds an FAA license and commercial pilot certificate with instrument rating. He earned a B.S. in aviation maintenance management, MBA in quantitative methods, M.S. in education and Ph.D. in organizational psychology. The majority of his aviation career has been involved with 121 carriers where he has held positions from aircraft mechanic to director of maintenance. Kinane currently works as Senior Quality Systems Auditor for AAR Corp. and adjunct professor for DeVry University instructing in Organizational Behavior, Total Quality Management (TQM) and Critical Thinking. PlaneQA is his consulting company that specializes in quality and safety system audits and training. Speaking engagements are available with subjects in Critical Thinking, Quality Systems and Organizational Behavior. For more information, visit

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