Downward Pressure

Downward Pressure

By John Goglia

April 1999

John Goglia

The way you manage the people who work for you says a lot about you personally. The first week that I worked for an major airline in New York, a shift supervisor and a mechanic got into shouting match over a problem that this mechanic found and reported just before the aircraft was to depart the hangar for the terminal.

As the mechanic was closing up access panels and doors prior to the aircraft being pushed out of the hangar, and was in the process of clearing the door to the hydraulic compartment, he looked inside (this area is large enough for someone to be inside) and found a hydraulic leak only because the hydraulic pump was running. It soon became clear that the leak was from the manifold housing, which would need to be replaced, and that this aircraft would not be going anywhere anytime soon. It only took a few seconds for the manager and the foreman to arrive, and when they also realized that this aircraft was not going anywhere, the loud discussions began. In my career, I have seen several similar sequences of events, and when calmer heads prevail, the problem is soon resolved, although sometimes bad feelings stay on.

Why do our supervisors react this way?

At least part of the answer to that question rests in the way they are measured in their job performance reviews, which usually determines their pay rates. It simply doesn't look good for a supervisor to be unable to complete the assigned work in the allotted time. Any activity that threatens the on-time performance of a supervisor will receive a similar reaction. The system that we, as maintenance professionals work within, really has no room for this type of behavior — although every mechanic or supervisor, must have a way to vent when the pressures of the work environment gets the better of him or her. Within our system of accomplishing maintenance, we have a responsibility to report any and all discrepancies that we find. It doesn't matter if we discover the problem during an inspection or if we are walking past an aircraft on the gate.

That is just one of the burdens that an air carrier faces when he receives a certificate to operate and the carrier commits to operate at the highest level of safety. Senior airline management understands this although this message doesn't always make it down to the lower management levels. One of the most common reasons for this type of problem to occur is a late discovery of a problem in an area that has had an inspection accomplished. Often another inspector will be in the same area to buy back some work that has been accomplished, and in the course of that inspection, some other defect is noted. When this occurs, it also brings out the unprofessional response from those who feel their job performance will be adversely impacted.

How does this happen? Why do people, who we believe are good inspectors, miss what sometimes are obvious defects?

If you have been following Richard Komarniski's column on the "Dirty Dozen," you can probably identify several factors that clearly have an impact on the performance of an inspector or mechanic. Clearly, distraction is one that quickly comes to mind when I think of how something is missed during a visual inspection.

I know that it is very easy to lose your train of thought or skip a step in your personal routine when you are interrupted. To make matters worse, interruptions are quite common at some facilities. Fatigue could also be part of the problem. We have an obligation to report to work in a condition to perform our duties. Sometimes, when the workload is high and we work too much overtime, we fall short on our rest. The Dirty Dozen can also explain why the supervisors and managers behave they way they do when there is a late discovery of a defect. The most obvious is pressure. On the job pressures can take many forms but within the air transport industry, the results are most always negative. I can tell you from firsthand experiences, how difficult it can be as a manager of technicians, to resist venting your frustrations.

The desire to do a good job, combined with the sometimes unreasonable demands placed on the first line management by senior management, oftentimes makes the job seem impossible. Most of the time, however, supervisors are able to handle the pressure from above and not pass this pressure on to the work force. Today, this is becoming much more difficult as the new breed of airline management brings their vision of cost containment to the maintenance departments. It would seem that demands are being placed on maintenance management that have not surfaced before. This in turn, is requiring more of everything from the first line supervisor. Added to this is the fact that with rare exception, the supervisors have not received any training in how to manage in this new environment.

This is certainly a formula for problems and one thing is clear — this situation will not change anytime in the near future. So, we all will need to adjust to this new challenge. Mechanics need to understand what is happening to the management, and managers will have to vent in such a way as not to pass these pressures through to their crew. That in the end, is the true measurement of a good supervisor.