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Revving Up Your Decision Engine: 3 Simple Steps to More Effective Planning

Oct 1, 2012

Whether AVSEC supervisor, Disaster Preparedness planner or Airport Operations Director, each day these key individuals must make critical decisions in order to ensure safe and secure flight operations. Making sound decisions and ensuring their proper execution reflects a balanced combination of effective planning and decision making along with skillfully honed leadership skills.

First, we must begin with a simple definition of planning. Planning for various contingencies might be thought of as the process of preparing an airline or airport to cope with an emergency. Pro-active planning involves the use of the decision making process to: view potential situations and factors, allocate limited resources to the problem at hand, for proactive action plans based on statistically significant 1 forecasts which allow for the implementation of early intervention. In short, the goal of this process is to minimize the effects of the emergency, particularly in respect to saving lives and maintaining the operation (either airport or airline).

In order to accomplish this goal, the organization must have a set policy and procedures for preventing, responding and recovering from a host of various situations (problems) which might endanger operations, passengers, crew or resources. Developing and promulgating these policies and procedures is the result of a process of making choices among various alternatives which give specific results towards a stated goal. More commonly, we refer to this process simply as decision making.

In aviation, as in other professions, decision making mirrors the ‘Scientific Process’ of data gathering, analysis, modeling and assessment of alternatives and selecting or defining an optimum solution, re-evaluating through feedback and re-analyzing to correct, if needed. Effective decision making, whether safety, security or operations related often involves:

Seeking greater information through the use of a Strategic Review

Differentiating between fact and opinion by analyzing data gathered, while

Seeking the views of both Line and Staff personnel

In doing so at the Data Gathering stage, decision makers are readily able to distinguish between real knowledge and facts about the airport working environment as opposed to employee judgments or inherent organizational beliefs. When done correctly, the very process of decision making will not only address the issue at hand effectively and efficiently but also:

Improves analysis of specific problems

Provides better input for plan revision

Yields more effective allocation of resources

Improves inter-agency communication

Gives responders a sense of direction

Yields greater public support

Increases the commitment to mission of the responder and management personnel

Your Decision Engine

Regardless of academic and professional background, each of us processes information through what might be thought of as our Decision Engine. This mental machine: takes in data in the form of input, analyzes the relevant information through converting it into observable models, assesses risk from various alternative solutions, predicts what might happen under varying conditions and finally outputs a solution statement resulting in a given policy or procedure. 

Byproducts of the decision process allow supervisors, planners and administrators to: identify weak spots in the system, identify patterns of concern, provides input for related situational analysis and provides key operations data for forecasting future situations.

Key to better organizational decisions lay in maximizing the efficiency of your personal Decision Engine.

By definition, decision making is the process of making choices among various alternatives which give specific results towards a stated goal. When done properly, the process helps the decision maker improve his/her analysis techniques, provides otherwise unknown information and helps the organization clarify specific goals and objectives.

An optimized decision engine will yield more effective resource allocation, improve overall communication and give others within the organization an enhanced sense of direction, purpose and clarity of function while enhancing commitment to the organization.


Step 1: Clearly State the Problem – The Strategic Review

Too often inadequate decisions are the result of a lack of a clear understanding of the problem at hand. And, more often than not, this lack of clarity is the direct result on the decision maker’s part to fully and clearly state the problem. Regardless of the circumstance surrounding an issue –whether safety, security or operational, the quality of your Decision Engine’s output – the solution statement - is only as good as the input will allow.

The first step in providing quality input is to clearly state the problem. The strategic review – an overall assessment of the organizational environment – must involve detailed answers to the following eight questions.

1. Who is affected?

2. What is affected?

3. How is it affected?

4. What kind of problem is it?

5. What types of actions are required?

6. Which model best suits the problem?

7. What is the objective of the plan?

8. What resources are available to achieve the stated goals?

The answers to these questions provide the basis for decision makers to move to the next step within the engine process: That of selecting an appropriate model.


Step 2: Choose the Appropriate Model for the Input

Consciously or unconsciously, each of us constructs various models of a problem situation within the confines of our decision making engine. Regardless of the form taken, the steps to the creation of a model remain the same.

1. Bound the problem--examine the Strategic Review and ask what elements are relative to the issue at hand

2. Identify important elements – what are the key components of the problem, identify who is involved, what is involved and what factors play upon their interrelationship

3. Determine logical relationships – visually indicate how the problem elements interact and affect each other both positively and negatively

4. Add data – your model should have quantifiable values (either ordinal or cardinal in nature)

5. Validate – test your model against changing variables and observe the outcome(s)

6. Ensure the model reflects and predicts what you want – Ask yourself ‘Did I clearly state the problem?’

7. Analyze and interpret the results

For most, the best way to organize data and clearly visualize all the elements of a problem is through a pictograph or simplified mathematical equation. Pictographs provide a visual image of the problem; interrelationships of the elements involved and should include the often limited resources available for its solution. By adding ordinal mathematical values to problem elements, decision makers can accurately judge the impact of a specific solution against the sum value of the problem at hand. In other words, ordinal and interval modeling allows the decision maker to categorically state that solution X is 5 points more effective than solution y, in achieving the goal at hand.

Regardless of the method of visualization selected, models express in basic visual terms the elements of a problem, resources required for each alternative solution (costs) and display in recognizable terms, the output of the decision maker’s individual engine process.


Step 3: Exhibit Effective Leadership – Implementing and Evaluating the Solution

Even the best or optimum decisions, require effective leadership in order to be properly implemented. As Tannenbaum and Schmidt wrote in 1973, ‘Today’s manager is more likely to deal with employees who resent being treated as subordinates, who may be highly critical of any organizational system, who expect to be consulted and to exert influence, and who often stand on the edge of alienation from the organization that needs their loyalty and commitment.’2 This situation is particularly true in the aviation environment of today.

Effective leadership rests on motivating employees and others to implement the policy and procedural decisions of an organization. This means clearly communicating vision, direction, instructions and taking follow-up actions where necessary. Leadership is as much an art as a learned science. Effective leaders understand the principals of Communication, Coordination, Command and Control. They are flexible, varying their style between Authoritarian, Democratic and Laissez-Faire, as needed, to achieve the goal – in this case implementation of new or ‘change’ policies and procedures.

Too often, those within aviation organizations confuse Leadership with Management. While Leaders provide vision (the output from their Decision Engine), Managers provide the resources (people, equipment and administrative support) necessary to implement the Leader’s policies.

The old proverb says that leadership is doing the right thing; management is doing things right. The difference between the two is not as sharp as the saying would suggest, and both are required for effective corporate growth: leadership risk creates opportunities while management strictness turns them into tangible results.



In the end, regardless of the appropriateness of the decision engine output, implementation, follow up, and re-analysis rests with leadership strengths of the individual in charge. In the end, airline operation, airport, or CAA, need to utilize learned leadership skills in order to optimize the decision making processes in addition to individuals with strong management skills, in order to effect positive organizational change.


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