One of Atticus®’ family law attorneys once mentioned that he did not fully appreciate the benefits of checklists and systems until he decided to pursue his pilot’s license. Then the value of systemizing became abundantly clear.

When writing our book on Time Management we interviewed a professional pilot to learn the aviator’s approach to systeming. We spoke to G. Patrick Owen, who, at the time of the interview, was a co-pilot on a DC 10 with Northwest Airlines. He had also worked as an instructor at Northwest and in the Navy as a carrier pilot and instructor.

I decided to take another look at this interview in light of the fact that there have been two recent and well-publicized incidents involving the failure of commercial aircraft: the first incident, in which the pilot chose to set his aircraft down on the Hudson River showed immense skill, judgment and an ability to follow systems, thus saving hundreds of lives. The second involved the crash of a small commercial carrier whose pilots were seemingly untrained and appeared to be in gross violation of their standard systems.

There is a lot to be learned from the world of aviation when it comes to systemizing. People’s lives depend on how good an airline’s systems are and how well they are followed. As a standard rule, the more dangerous the occupation, the more systemized it will be. While in your law practice you don’t have to worry that your actions will harm anyone physically, a mistake on the part of yourself or your team can do substantial legal damage.

Here’s the interview:

Atticus®: What are the benefits of systems and checklists in the airplane?

There is one overriding goal when flying a plane: a safe, efficient operation that results in a successful landing at the intended destination with minimum distractions. Anything that impedes the means to do this must be viewed as a distraction. The system goes forward despite weather, day or night, or the financial condition of the airlines. Landing at night on automatic pilot is the same as landing during the day. The airplane doesn’t “know” it’s night.

Systems cut down on fatigue. That includes the automation of the mechanical systems of the airplane and the checklists for operating procedures. You get predictable results v. random results. Checklists save time because you are not re-inventing the wheel every time you face a task. Effective systems take the emotion out of decision making.

Atticus®: Do some pilots resist using systems and checklists?

Those individuals who don’t like checklists or systems don’t make it as pilots. There’s a reason commercial airlines have more than one pilot in every cockpit. They don’t want anybody going off on a creative tear without checks and balances. They want a team to support the checklist and the systems.

Atticus®: What are the consequences of not using systems and checklists?

Without systems, you get inconsistent results. Checklists are designed to take care of the minutia and that leaves brainpower to focus on core issues. Minutia encompasses maintaining altitude, keeping wings level, and engine rpm tuning. Core issues are weather on arrival, fuel for holding if necessary, status of aircraft systems (i.e., brakes).

Are some systems more important than others?

The priority goes like this:

  1. Systems that aviate (keep the airplane in the air).
  2. Systems that navigate (keep the airplane going in the right direction).
  3. Systems that communicate. (This is the least important. You don’t talk until you have the airplane flying and know where you are going.)

Atticus®: How does one discipline him or herself to stick to checklists?

Once you learn the systems, you begin to have faith in them. You find that you get a superior result with less effort. The systems allow you to critique yourself immediately after every flight. What went right? What went wrong? What could be improved?

Atticus®: What advice do you have for those who do not naturally have faith in checklists/systems?

See checklists as building blocks. You have to walk before you can run. Don’t beat yourself up if you fail. Look for skilled peers to show you how to do better. There is no substitute for being prepared.

All the important decisions need to be made in a controlled and calm environment on the ground. You don’t have to deviate from the plan unless there is something of impending importance that requires it. It’s rare.

If you make a serious mistake, you ask yourself, “Is this the beginning of the new beginning or the beginning of the end?” Attitude and openness to correct mistakes determine the new direction.

People become afraid if they don’t have all the answers up front. You have to accept that you will never have all the answers at given points in time. If you are adequately prepared, you will get the answers as you need them.

Many people can be brilliant pilots if they have great weather, plenty of gas, and an airplane in good condition. Only if any of that goes awry, do they then have to multi-task in high stress environments. Pilots, for the most part, are not paid for what they do; they are paid for what they know.

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