Launching a Successful Human Factors Program for Maintenance

Harold Summers 2019 Fall

What could possibly go wrong?

Most safety professionals will tell you that “selling” human factors to maintenance technicians can be a daunting task. It’s no wonder they, having endured a multitude of failed safety improvement programs over the years, regard human factors as more of the same. “Flavor of the month” is a term often heard. Others compare it to a bad case of indigestion with the wistful words, “This too shall pass.”

By the end of a typical human factors course, that skepticism has turned to enthusiasm. Negativism is replaced by comments like, “Superb course,” “I recommend this to all technicians,” and, “We should have started this a long time ago.”

That’s a great start for your human factors program, but it’s just the beginning. Technician support is essential to the success of any human factors program aimed at reducing maintenance errors and improving workplace safety. Garnering this support involves more than just providing the training, however. Certain conditions must be embraced by the entire workplace, including technicians, management, and leadership, to create the conditions that will allow your human factors program to flourish.

Get management buy-in. At the conclusion of human factors training, the most frequently heard question is, “This sounds great, but will our management support and follow through with it?” The vision of management and technicians working together to identify and eliminate factors that lead to errors seems improbable to some maintenance personnel.

A strong initial statement of support, delivered personally by a ranking company manager, and accompanied by consistent follow-through is necessary to overcome this skepticism and encourage continued technician support and participation. If management support is lukewarm or inconsistent—if the “flavor of the month” charge turns out to be true—your organization’s human factors program will fail.

Adopt a clear, fair, and consistently applied discipline policy. When the Boeing Maintenance Error Decision Aid (MEDA) tool was first introduced in the airline industry, it wasn’t immediately accepted. The process relies on maintenance personnel to provide crucial data about the factors that caused the error. If those personnel are unsure how the collected data is to be used, it’s not surprising that some would be less than forthcoming.

For this reason, it’s vital that human factors error-reduction programs include a policy aimed at instituting or strengthening an organization’s just culture. An unintentional error must be treated as a process or training issue, rather than a disciplinary one. The focus is on improving safety, not punishment. Management should provide maintenance personnel with clear guidance on how both unintentional and intentional errors will be handled—and stick to it every time.

Use real-world examples to define benefits. As previously mentioned, maintenance personnel are naturally skeptical of soft-skill training. I’ve found the wisest approach isn’t to ignore this skepticism but rather to address it via a well-reasoned introduction. To this end, you may want to pose to them two questions: What are human factors? And why should I care?

Even under the best conditions, defining the term “human factors” can be difficult. Clear, practical definitions of terms such as “human error” and “maintenance error,” accompanied by real-life examples, can begin to build the case that this is a topic worthy of technician and management attention.

Achieving a high level of buy-in, however, requires a convincing answer to the second question. Strong evidence from aviation safety and economics is needed. Use both positive examples (how a human factors issue was spotted and corrected to provide a measurable safety improvement) and negative ones (there are a multitude of examples of this, unfortunately). Properly presented, this evidence leaves no doubt in the mind of the maintenance professional that this is a topic that requires and is worthy of technician support.

Employ a practical, team-based approach to reducing human error. Overcoming technicians’ stereotypes of soft-skill programs like human factors requires the program to have a practical utility that any technician can readily understand and in which he or she can actively participate. Implementation of an ­error-reduction process, such as the MEDA process, can provide such practical utility.

With this process, when an incident occurs, technicians are involved in identifying the human factors that contributed to the incident and recommending strategies to reduce further occurrences. Participating in the process allows technicians to come face-to-face with the practical reality of human factors, how these factors contribute to errors, and the role they can play in preventing future incidents. 

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