A Pound of Airplane Equals a Pound of Paper

A Pound of Airplane Equals a Pound of Paper

Fred WorkleyBy Fred Workley

September 2000

How many times have you heard the phrase "When the paper work equals the weight of the airplane, we can go flying"? I have been doing a lot of thinking recently about how we maintain airplanes. It appears we read something, do something, and write about it. Someone initiates a squawk, a discrepancy, or just says "It's broken." We as technicians then interpret that information and through miraculous troubleshooting, either verify the complaint or say no fault found. After we fix the airplane, we have to document what we did for the maintenance record.
My concern here is how we communicate that the airplane is broken and how we utilize the information available to fix the airplane. Technicians have a long memory and tend to remember what fixed the airplane last time it had the same squawk. We in aviation have been gathering information for years through documentation. There are thousands of boxes of old maintenance check paper work on every model of airplane stored around the country.
Our industry needs to become more efficient in incorporating ways to use all the data that is already stored and available about repairing airplanes. We need this information to speed up our decision making process. We need it to help us meet all the regulatory requirements. The goal is to be as efficient as possible. The end result is that our professional image will be further enhanced.
The challenge that you face in this glut of information is to develop soft skills, such as speaking or writing, as well as the technical skills. You are a valued resource for repairing airplanes. Coupled with your skill and experience, your in-demand knowledge is constantly expanding, thus adding to your personal knowledge base. You are committed and can innovate and collaborate to put the airplane back in the air. But, have you ever read carefully how you document the aircraft maintenance that you did and signed for?

Human factors in documentation
Journalists use this approach: Who? What? Where? When? How? This is a human factors consideration. Even with computers giving us all this mass of information, the challenge is to communicate clearly and concisely to get the job done right the first time.
The Federal Aviation Administration Office of Aviation Medicine and Flight Standards Service published a book in August 1999, titled Development of Process to Improve Work Documentation. The project examined the human factors issues in repair station operations with particular emphasis on documentation issues. One of the topics involves Multiple Documentation Formats. One significant issue is that we often have to perform work instructions using a variety of styles of work cards and non-routine repair reports for many different makes and models. At one of the locations studied, "information" was cited in almost half of the errors. This suggests to me that information along with poor document design need our attention. But is it the information or our comprehension of the information that eventually leads to errors?

The error of our ways
There are two separate issues that lead to errors. One is that the quality of documents such as work cards is highly variable across the airline industry as a whole, so that poorly designed documents co-exist with well-designed ones. The other is that in addition to having to work with some poorly designed documents; the technician must change back and forth between quite differently designed documents. Think of the Airworthiness Directives (ADs) and Service Bulletins for all the different fleets that you have tried to interpret. Even those of us with Inspection Authorizations get bogged down at times.

Documentation pitfalls
Work documents that have been copied until they are the tenth generation are tough to read even in good light, let alone under the wing at three in the morning with weak batteries.
Package philosophy sometime doesn't offer enough sign-offs for individual sections or offers one sign-off for multiple shifts thus creating a problem in work/shift turn over. Sometimes the overall quality is poor, lacking proper sequencing. You might suspect that someone who never did the job himself or herself wrote them. Another problem is with the level of detail. Some work cards are self-contained, with references incorporated directly into the work card package. Other work tasks instructions are a statement to accomplish the task per a Maintenance Manual reference. You have to go and find the procedures or process yourself.

Write the right words
Wording is a concern. The same words mean different things to different people. We seem to have a problem having consistent meaning of words throughout our industry despite the implied standards like ATA-100. Finally, non-routine write-ups vary greatly in their formats. Computer-based formats differ widely among the different commercial programs that are available.
No matter what you are faced with, you have to read, understand and carry out the maintenance task instructions despite any of the above distractions. Never assume that it can be done this time just like the last time you did the job. This may be a different configuration. The software may make it operate differently during the operational check. You have to be constantly be aware of the correct 'revision status.'
Consistency is required for reliability. The report pointed out that when a technician changes between different "logics," errors increase. An example would be working on the same system of two airplanes built by different manufacturers.
Documentation improvement will clearly help us communicate better. If you need information on improving the readability and usefulness of documents you may be interested in the Documentation Design Aid (DDA). This is available at http:\\www.hfskyway.com web site or on the FAA 1998 Human Factors for Aviation Maintenance CD-ROM.
Let's Keep 'em Flying.