I remember sitting in a meeting with a handful of managers discussing some proposed changes to our repair station procedures. We were planning on implementing a new system that would streamline the movement of serviceable parts through the facility. Naturally, we needed to understand the current system to see if the proposed system improved the process.
After we began the discussion, we quickly realized that no one really knew how it was actually done. This was because everyone in the meeting had been working behind a desk for the past five years. None of us had actually done the work ourselves or moved a single part through the building. It didn’t help that our manual was so vague that there was no way to read it and know how the parts flowed from area to area. If we couldn’t figure it out, how could we expect the mechanics in the shops to figure it out?
To fix this, we all spent some time in the shops and then brought in one of the shop managers to walk us through the process. It turned out that there were many processes for moving parts around. And not one of them was even close to what we had written in our manual. Once we determined how we wanted the flow to go, we were able to make our changes. If you're not in the shops or on the hangar floor or at your maintenance base on a regular basis, you don't really know what's going on. Honest.
Know what's going on
As a manager, you need to know what’s going on. But I don't want you to go out and make a whirlwind tour of the shops. Don't spend 10 minutes with the hangar crews and think you’ve figured it all out. To know what's going on, you need to spend some real time there.
I had a boss who used to send all of his managers into the shops or out to the field locations on a regular basis. We had a dozen or so bases in Texas and Louisiana along the Gulf of Mexico, where we supported our fleet of helicopters to support the offshore oil rigs. When a maintenance manager from one of our bases took a vacation, one of us from Galactic Headquarters would take his place. We didn't just grab a company car and stop by for coffee; we spent a week there and worked. After we had been there a day or so, the field mechanics (who often had only a very tentative connection to the head shed) forgot that we were 'spies' for management and treated us with the same amount of respect that they treated their regular boss; painfully little.
On each of those trips, I learned a great deal about what was working, (and what wasn't) where the real problems were, and got a lot of suggestions on how to fix problem areas. Plus, as an added bonus, I got to go out and put my hands on real live aircraft and do some honest work. Slow, but honest. We also did this in our component overhaul shops and on the hangar floor. The repair station seemed to have a life of its own, and was forever evolving. If you didn’t completely immerse yourself in the system, you would occasionally bump up against a surprise, sometimes a good one, sometimes a bad one.
But I don't have time
But, you say. I don't have time to go to the field or to the hangar floor. Yes you do. No, you say, I’m too important; this place will fall apart if I’m not here. No it won’t.
For you to do your job, you need to know what’s going on. And you won’t always do that sitting behind your desk or talking on your cell phone. You just have to find the time to do it. No matter how good your organization is, if you don’t monitor and update your procedures, they will change of their own accord.
People like to find new and better ways to do their work. Aircraft mechanics may be the worst (or best, depending on how you look at it). The typical A&P mechanic is continually fixing things that are broken. This includes the aircraft, the tugs, the plumbing in the hangar, and the company processes and procedures. What he may not do is let you know that he’s “fixed” some of your broken policies. This means that there may be non-standard procedures being used that you don’t know about.
Location, location, location
It was my experience that the further a field base was from the main hangar, the more likely our company procedures weren’t being followed. Geography can be a huge challenge. As managers, we had a tendency to spend more time at the nearby facilities because they were easy to get to. Those bases that took more than a day to get to were often overlooked.
When you get to the base and take the time to talk to the mechanics over lunch, or on a break, you will get an earfull. And you need to listen. But your visit should not be limited to a cup of joe or a trip to the pizza buffet. You need to visit with the stores and parts folks. If you don't think that their job is critical, try keeping your fleet up without them. You need to find out if the trucks are being maintained, if the tools are being calibrated, and replaced when needed. You can get to know the folks at flight following or dispatch, the linemen, and the re-fuelers.
All of these people are crucial to your success, and you need to know how they're doing. If there is something that prevents them from doing their job, maybe it's something that you can fix. There are dozens of opportunities for you to learn, teach, network, and socialize. And here’s one of the big bonuses: If people know your face, they're more likely to call you when there's a problem.
If you haven’t been to your field bases or down to the shops or to the hangar floor in a while, don’t feel alone. It’s easy to find yourself in this position. Many managers are hands-on until someone puts them behind a desk. Suddenly you’re dealing with budgets, capital expenditures, manning levels, and all sorts of important issues.
Meanwhile, despite your best efforts, there’s a whole world of maintenance happening out there that can slip away from you. There are also a lot of good ideas, clever innovations, and alternate procedures that can help you and your company perform better. But if you don’t go to them, they probably won’t come to you. So walk to the hangar or grab the keys to the company Chevrolet and hit the road.
Wayne Fry joined the FAA in 1997. His current position is Assistant Manager for the office that has oversight of American Eagle Airlines. Fry has worked in Washington, D.C., at FAA Headquarters, at the Southwest Region Flight Standards Division, and in several field offices. He is an Airframe and Powerplant mechanic and private pilot.