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Thursday, November 6, 2014

Beware of Becoming Bureaucratic

By Terry Terrell

I once heard a well-known and highly experienced leader of a very large petroleum services helicopter enterprise postulate that, “If it weren’t for the people and the equipment, this business would be easy.” It turns out that despite a constantly advancing evolution of helicopter development, avionics breakthroughs that consistently outpace all conventional industry expectations, and, indeed, invention of whole new categories of operational accessory technology, mastery of equipment in the helicopter business is the easy part. Unfortunately, the hardware half of the helicopter business formula is often upstaged by a universally present assortment of human resources challenges. Add to the equation a parallel development in all manner of computer-driven administrative infrastructure, which can take on a life and inertia of its own, and which by modern consensus is featured as manifestly essential in order to support anything and everything that physically happens, and an exponential workload increase required for controlling any given helicopter activity is categorically assured. The human component, of course, intensified by the astonishing degree of personal leverage produced through contemporarily fashionable “Information Technology” systems, is ultimately obliged to manage the challenge. Accumulations of computer-augmented human beings, however, no matter how conservatively disciplined and well intentioned, eventually demonstrate less than perfectly constructive psychological propensities, and though still regulated by edicts which predate all known government organizational models, they can seriously compromise safety and efficiency by exhibiting some of the negative characteristics shown in classic bureaucracies.

Imperfect human behavior, then, is an ingredient that is unavoidable in its occupation of a dominant place in the formula driving any helicopter operational activity, and though sometimes frustrating to all concerned, it can occasionally be amusing. I can attest to one observation that, at least on some levels, seems profoundly telling regarding fundamental human conduct. A particular military base with which I was once closely familiar, featured a desk to which almost every incoming junior officer was assigned during his first year on station, supervising the “management” of a small volume of on-base motor vehicle traffic. Over the years a few of the base roadways had evolved to one-way traffic flow configurations, and a diagram of this outlay had come to occupy a high visibility wall within duty offices. This exaggerated visibility, in turn, caused station traffic flow to assume an abnormally outsized priority in the mind of each new junior officer. There was virtually no possibility of variation in the scope of responsibility offered within the assignment except in “improving” the traffic flow on base. Every time a new junior officer showed up, those of us more senior on the totem pole of command hierarchy would organize a betting pool based on how long it would take for the newbie to change the polarity of all the one way streets. I don’t know the precise psychological phraseology for what it says about the human quest for esteem and self-actualization, but I can testify that over three years I saw the polarity of those one way streets change exactly three times, as three new “managers” of the department struggled in desperate attempts to achieve some sense of contribution and self-worth in a command which generally dealt with issues of much higher gravity. This ongoing struggle, trivial though it might have been when compared to larger command concerns, was unmistakable evidence that typical Type A people, found abundantly among most pilot and aviation-professional populations, are driven to achieve some sense of significance in their own minds, no matter what the actual environmental realities might be, and it ends up that outside perceptions just do not matter.

There is no question that the complex task of operating helicopters can be mastered and controlled over time through the application of well-directed effort by good management. Good leaders, however, literally from the pilot level all the way up to company executive directors, must stand perpetually on guard in order to avoid allowing bureaucratic-like weaknesses to become a potentially dangerous distraction, infringing on the safety and efficiency of quality flight operations. And that’s at least one part of the secret to making the helicopter business, in the final analysis, easy.

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