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Let’s not Overdo Adaptability

by Gene Benson

It seems that anyone writing or speaking about individual or company success feels compelled to stress adaptability as an essential trait. I doubt that anyone would disagree with the importance of being able to adapt to changes in society, business, technology, and other things. Many of us can cite an example of an individual who did not adapt to changes in their profession and suffered a career setback. We also know of companies that did not adapt to a changing market and no longer exist. Some of us know of a person who did not adapt to changing norms of acceptable behavior in the workplace and became a target of legal action. So, yes, adaptability is very important.

But having been around the block very many times and having a very high number on my personal odometer, I want to offer a caution. There is a difference between adaptability and acquiescence. Adaptability is the quality of being able to adjust to new conditions while acquiescence is a silent or passive assent or submission. When a new idea or a change to an established procedure is proposed with hype, it is easier to go along with the group than to be the sole questioning voice. That is especially true for the less senior members of the group. Though internal red flags might be raised, our unconscious minds can convince us that we must be willing to adapt, and we jump onboard. But did we adapt or did we acquiesce under the power of normative social influence?

This can be critical in high-stakes industries. Established methods of operating should be periodically examined for flaws and possible improvement, but thorough consideration and testing is essential before modifications should be made. One of the things we encourage in the “Being Better Program” is to develop a habit of questioning. We encourage our participants to question not only the merits and pitfalls possible with a new idea, but also the underlying motivation for presenting it.

I will take an example from aviation. In the mid to late 1980s, two-engine jet airliners always taxied with both engines running. Somebody decided that a significant amount of fuel could be saved if only one engine was used for taxi. Great hype accompanied the directive for all pilots to employ single-engine taxi. The justification included things like two-engine taxi was a throwback to the days of the piston engines when warm-up was necessary prior to takeoff. And there was an appeal to our collective conscience by claiming the environmental advantages of burning less fuel.

Several of the younger captains, eager to please management and claim boasting rights for being on the cutting edge of progress, immediately began doing most of their taxing on one engine. They thought they had demonstrated their adaptability.

Then the problems began. A train of baggage carts was blown over by the high thrust needed for one engine to get the airplane moving after pushback. The procedure to start one engine from the bleed air of the opposite engine if the APU was not running was complex and easily done incorrectly. Some key airplane systems were powered by the electrics or hydraulics on only one engine. The absence of that engine operating caused unexpected system problems.

Most of the more experienced captains took a more cautious approach to single-engine taxi. They questioned the real motivation behind the new procedure and quickly determined that cost savings from burning less fuel was the primary basis. Some of the captains poured over the voluminous airplane manuals to discern which systems would be affected if either engine was not operating. They compiled lists of the systems and which engine powered them. They examined the difference between taxiing a heavy airplane and a lightly loaded airplane with only one engine operating. They talked to the aircraft maintenance folks and learned that nose gear assemblies had been overstressed by the side loads. They learned that several flights had been delayed or cancelled because of an inoperative system that was only inoperative because it relied on an engine that had not yet been started. These and other problems cost the airline much more money than was saved by single-engine taxi. The captains who had jumped at the new procedure without questioning it had been acquiescent rather than adaptable.

Management, pilots, and maintenance technicians collaborated to see if there was a way to make single-engine taxi successful and productive. There was a way, but restrictions on when it was permitted were needed. Procedures setting parameters that specified the conditions under which single-engine taxi could be done were established and special checklists were created. Most airlines today successfully employ single-engine taxi in their two-engine airliners. Millions of gallons of fuel have been saved over the years.

In the end, adaptability demonstrated by all parties created a successful set of procedures. But this was only accomplished by questioning rather than acquiescing. We all need to be smart about being adaptable.

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