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Crew Development: A Wasted Opportunity

June 15, 2017
How can we get crew members to gel with one another to create the working familiarly that is so essential for safety?

We talk about Brother’s Keeper but I’m not sure we create the proper conditions, particularly for line crews, for that to fully take root. This is because most of us give “crew development’ short shrift despite numerous examples of best practice.

Defining ‘Crew’

There are certain elements that define a “crew,” rather than a department or perhaps even a larger team.  These include smaller size, a defined identity and permanence beyond any one leader. For example, the crew of a WW2 B-17 bomber had 10 members, who were permanently attached to one aircraft, for instance the Memphis Belle, and they were nearly perfectly intact for the duration of their 25-mission tour.  Another example would be an NBA team, for example, the Los Angeles Lakers.  The team has 12 players, the core of which represent the franchise and they have typically played together for five or six seasons as a defined unit. 

It took my maturing son with Down Syndrome a couple of seasons to fully grasp the concept of players being “traded,” so strongly had he learned and associated key players with specific teams.  NBA teams rarely make franchise player adjustments, for example Durant’s addition to the Golden State Warriors, because the benefits are uncertain and possibly deleterious.   Adding talent, especially exceptional talent, could easily backfire without adroit and careful attention to team cohesion.

Line Crews Can Lack Cohesion and Identity

We build line crews based on economics, driven by job size and complexity and then adjust based on absences due to vacation, illness, etc.  A specific line crew does not typically survive the transition of a leader, unless it is a small or rural district.  Personal reputations may endure, but rarely is a crew designated (Engine Company 51) or branded (the nose art on a B-17). The inspiration and potency of a team legacy is forfeited, including the possibility of leveraging cohesion, identity and history to inspire and motivate new crew members. 

For example, the new players on the Lakers are aware of the team’s storied legacy and are undoubtedly motivated to achieve the standards set by prior Laker teams.  Magic Johnson rejoined the Laker organization to rebuild, protect and continue the Laker legacy. 

It took centuries for humanity to discover, name and codify the four fundamental forces of nature; gravity, the weak force, electromagnetism and the strong force.  We couldn’t see them so they were nearly impossible to describe. Ultimately, each of these forces was understood from a physics and mathematical perspective.  Their parameters were codified and became predictable and usable phenomenon. 

Humans and organizations also operate according to invisible laws of behavior, and while not as predictable as physics, neuroscience has made us realize that we have more in common with one each another than not.  We now understand the forces behind group identity, formation, behavior and motivation and their effects on individual and team safety.    

We conduct leadership development classes, take personality assessments, and become technically proficient, but we generally don’t focus on individual crew cohesion and development.  We fail to establish the identity and permanence necessary for increased crew cohesion and improved safety performance.

The airlines learned that crew and cockpit dynamics mattered during the 80’s and 90’s and took appropriate steps.  However, it can still be overlooked, as evidenced by the crash-landing of an Asiana Airlines 777 at San Francisco International Airport in 2014.  Part of the blame was determined to be an unhealthy cockpit culture.

Comparing Line and Substation Crews

Substation crews have nearly perfect safety records and can serve as a near perfect comparator for line crews.  Of course, technically, substation crews have less equipment variability, less physical exertion or strain, mostly work at ground level, visit known work sites and perform work on de-energized equipment.

However, perhaps because of these reasons, there are additional, intangible crew advantages.  The crews are more stable over time, perhaps in part because the physicality of the work does not drive individuals into an office at mid-career.  This allows for long standing crews, perhaps spending their entire career at one or two stations.  As a result, the apprentice ratio is less demanding and new people are added less frequently than in the lineman classification. 

Given the challenges in building line crews, can we select, define and preserve line crews so that they demonstrate the same characteristics as substation crews?  Are there development activities we can take to quickly prepare newly formed crews?  Can we build crews in a timely manner, but simultaneously equip them with processes and practices to ensure cohesion and encourage a duty of care?  How can we get crew members to gel with one another to create the working familiarly that is so essential for safety? 

I would appreciate hearing about the various approaches that you have developed to build and harmonize field based working crews.  How do you designate crews?  Foreman name, number, color?   Do your crews have permanence beyond the current leader?  Do your crews have a safety and performance legacy that will inspire new members?  It would be a privilege to hear your thoughts, which can be sent to me at [email protected].

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