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What can SMEs learn from aviation safety?

The aviation industry takes massive action after a crash. Why don’t we react the same way within business?

View from inside the cockpit of a plane flying over a city

To avoid mistakes from recurring, we should have good processes in place.

It's October 2018, and an AgustaWestland AW169 helicopter is lifting off the pitch at King Power Stadium after a Leicester's game against West Ham United. The aircraft, followed live by television channel BT sport, carries club owner and billionaire businessman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, the pilot, and three other people on board. At approximately 20:37 BS, as the helicopter takes off vertically, the tail rotor breaks - sending it into an uncontrollable spin. Soon after, the aircraft falls to the ground, bursting into flames and taking the lives of everyone on board.

An investigation is promptly opened into the incident. Helicopters rarely take off vertically, following a more horizontal path along the ground instead until they reach a certain speed. There is more risk to this maneuver, but helicopter crashes due to mechanical failure are extremely rare - even rarer when they have two engines like the AgustaWestland. Only 3% of accidents can be blamed on mechanical failure, compared to 75% due to pilot error. However, investigators soon realized that the cause of the accident was the tail rotor actuator control shaft becoming disconnected from the mechanism that connects the pilots' pedals. Basically, a design fault.

As a helicopter pilot myself, I discussed the accident with many others. We soon learned that what had happened was that the locking nut and pin carrier were found bonded together and loose in the tail rotor (when they should be separate components). The failure of the rotor caused the helicopter to steer violently to the right, crashing. Footage of the accident also seemed to show that sections of the tail rotor had fallen off mid-air.

Some nuts on helicopters have a pin put through them with a wire attached to never come completely loose. Other nuts, like this one, don't. As a result of the Leicester accident, every one of these helicopters was recalled by the European Aviation Safety Agency. The design of the tail was amended, not just for existing AW169 helicopters but also for similar models and new ones. We can now be sure this particular failure will never occur again.

Learning from Failure: Why Are There So Few Helicopter Crashes?

It's not surprising that aircraft manufacturers recalled the aircraft and made sure the design problem was fixed for all future models. This is pretty much a standard approach within the aviation industry. Whether the cause of an accident is a mechanical error or a pilot error (the rise of fatal mishaps in the last years is due to an increase in non-essential low-altitude operations), everyone in the sector knows that they need to understand exactly what went wrong so we can all be safer in the skies. If it's a mechanical issue, we make sure we fix it for all existing and future aircraft. If it's a pilot error, as with 97% of the cases, we improve our training to cover all new scenarios.

Aircraft manufacturers excel at embedding their learned lessons in the systems and processes of the industry. That's why helicopter travel has become incredibly safe, despite the fact that accidents like that of the AgustaWestland receive massive publicity.

So why is the airline industry so good at this? And why don’t we act the same way in business? After all, when we look at processes in, for example, social care, errors could also cause harm to individuals if we get things wrong.

The Problem with Our Business Processes

The trouble with most processes (regardless of your company’s industry) is that they sit in files on shelves, and nobody ever looks at them. Most people associate them with control and monotony. However, processes have had to be embedded deeply into the aviation industry to avoid accidents and loss of lives. It's become something aircraft experts need to live and breathe - and something all SMEs should all consider.

In my opinion, we need to learn about this industry and change the way we deal with mistakes and errors in business. As soon as we discover one, we should ensure that it never happens again. And the only way to do this is through good, robust processes that can help parties collaborate, especially in areas where mistakes can cause harm, such as social and healthcare settings.

The reality is that most processes we turn into a word document or physical file often end up forgotten, eroding over time, and creating a backlog of potential tension within your staff instead. Most processes also tend to involve multiple steps, which most of us try to memorize and this invariably will lead to people forgetting things. Documenting a process is not enough. To avoid costly mistakes that can actually risk people's lives and wellbeing, we should genuinely embed our processes into our businesses.

What SMEs Can Learn From Aviation Safety

So what can small and mid-size enterprises learn from the aviation industry? And how can we make our business processes better?

Many SMEs develop their business by using iterative experimentation. The systematic testing of ideas is at the heart of a company's ability to innovate. Before you can start selling anything, you need to come up with and refine your products, and the only way to do this is through the process of experimentation. Innovations don't drop from the sky; they need to be nurtured and developed. A critical stage of this process is the ability to find errors and mistakes and react to them as soon as we see them.

An organization's ability to experiment and learn is paramount for its success. Thomas Alva Edison noted that inventive genius is "99% perspiration and 1% inspiration". In business, we often see an error, discuss it, and might even identify solutions - whether next to the water cooler or in a formal meeting. But we don’t always follow them up. The tricky part is to embed those lessons back into our processes so our company can grow.

It's an old saying, but that doesn't make it wrong: Everyone makes mistakes. Things are always going to go wrong. For entrepreneurs and small business owners, this can be a bitter pill to swallow, but errors are something we can learn from and use to become better at what we do.

The airline industry is excellent at this. In the early days of flight, approximately 80% of accidents were caused by machine failure. Today, the statistic has reversed. If something does happen, an operator carries out a careful investigation and reviews, implements, and tracks prevention strategies to reduce the likelihood of similar errors. This is how we should deal with our mistakes in business, too.

Learning How to Deal with Mistakes

If we want to create stronger, better processes for our businesses, we need to be open to learning from mistakes. And the first thing we need to do is identify what one looks like.

Understanding what exactly went wrong is not always as easy as it seems, as errors can be especially challenging for owners to admit. You will make mistakes, so what matters the most is that you take ownership of them, learn quickly, and move on to the next challenge. Showing you can bounce back from adversity will inspire your team and give you more confidence in your own endeavor. But don't forget also to look back; your best teacher is usually your last mistake.

Every machine needs maintenance once in a while. When a mistake happens, it's crucial to look at the process and re-evaluate its efficiency. For example, were any steps skipped? Were any missing? Don't avoid the talk, don't move on to the next agenda item without learning from your mistakes. If you use them as a chance to tinker with your process, you will be able to perfect it. And when you do, you will feel confident your business is doing its best to protect its users.


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