A Pound of Airplane Equals a Pound of Paper
By Fred Workley
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.
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