Does CRM work? Some questions about it

Let’s start by clarifying something: CRM is not the same that Human Factors concern. This is a very specific way to channelize this concern in a very specific context, that is, the cockpit…even though, CRM philosophy has been applied to Maintenance through MRM and other fields where a real teamwork is required.

Should we have to improve CRM training or is it not the right way? Do we have to improve indicators quality or should we be more worried about the environment in which these indicators appear?…

An anecdote: A psychologist, working in a kind of jail for teenagers had observed something around the years: The center had a sequence known as “the process”, whose resemblance to Kafka work seemed to be more than accidental, and inmates were evaluated according to visible behavior markers included in “the process”. Once all the markers in the list appeared, the inmate was set free. The psychologist observed that smarted inmates, not best ones, were the ones able to pass the process because in a very short time were able to exhibit the desired behavior. Of course, once out of the center, they behave as they liked and, if they were caught again, they would exhibit again the required behavior to go out.

Some CRM approaches are very near to this model. The evaluator looks for behavioral markers whose optimum values are kindly offered by evaluated people and, once passed the evaluation, they can behave in agreement with their real drive, whatever it is coincident with the CRM model or not.

Many behaviorist psychologists say that the key is which behavioral markers are selected. They can even argue that this model works in clinical psychology. They are right but, perhaps, they are not fully right and, furthermore, they are wrong in the most relevant part:

We cannot try to use the model from clinical psychology because there is a fundamental flaw: In clinical psychology, the patient goes by himself asking for a solution because his own behavior is felt like a problem. If, through the treatment, the psychologist is able to suppress the undesired behavior, the patient himself will be in charge of making this situation remain. The patient wants to change.

If, instead of speaking about clinical psychology, we focus in undesired behaviors from teamwork perspective, things do not work that way:  Unwanted behaviors for the organization or the team could be highly appreciated by the one who exhibits them. Hence, they can dissappear while they are observed but, if so, it does not mean learning but, perhaps, craftiness from the observed person.

For a real change, three variables have to change at the same time: Competence, Coordination and Commitment. Training is useful if the problem to be solved is about competence. It does not work if the organization does not make a serious effort to avoid contradictory messages and, of course, it is useless if there is not commitment by individuals, that is, if the intention to change is not clear or, simply, it does not exist.

Very often, instead of a real change, solutions appear under the shape of shortcuts. These shortcuts try to subvert the fact that the three variables are required and, furthermore, they are required at the same time. Instead of this, it is easier to look for the symptom, that is, the behavioral marker.

Once a visible marker is available, the problem is redefined: It is not about attitude anymore; it is about improving the marker.  Of course, this is not new and everyone knows that the symptomatic solution does not work. Tavistock consultants use to speak about “snake oil” as an example of useless fluid offered by someone who knows it does not work to any other who knows the same. However, even knowing it, they can buy the snake oil because it satisfies the own interest…for instance, not being accused of inaction about the problem.

The symptomatic solution goes on even in front of full evidence against it. At the end of the day, who sells it makes a profit and who buys it save the face. The next step should be alleging that the solution does not perform at the expected level and, hence, we should improve it.

Once there, some crossed interests make hard changing things for anyone who has something to lose. It is risky telling that “The Emperor is naked”.Instead of that, there is a high probability that people will start to praise the new Emperor gown. 

Summarizing, training is useful to change if there is in advance a desire to change. Behavioral markers are useful if they can be observed under conditions where the observed person does not know to be observed. Does CRM meet these conditions? There is an alternative: Showing in a clear and undisputed way that the suggested behavior gets better results than the exhibited by the person to be trained. Again…does CRM meet this condition?

Certainly, we could find behavioral markers that, for deep psychology lovers, are predictive. However, this is a very dangerous road that some people followed in selection processes. This could easily become a kind of witch-hunting. As an anecdote, a recruiter was very proud about his magical question to know a candidate: His magic question was asking for the name of the second wife of Fernando the Catholic. For him, this question could provide him a lot of keys about the normal behavior of the candidate. Surprisingly, these keys dissappeared if the candidate happened to know the right answer.

If behavioral markers have a questionnable value and looking for other behaviors with a remote relation with the required ones, it should be required looking in different places if we want a real CRM instead of pressure to agreement -misunderstood teamwork- or theatrical exercises aimed to provide the desired behavior to the observer.

There is a lot of work to do but, perhaps, in different ways that the ones already stepped:

  1. Recruiting investment: Recruiting cannot be driven only by technical ability since it can be acquired by someone with basic competences. Southwest Airlines is said to have rejected as a pilot a candidate because he addressed in a rude way to a receptionist. Is it a mistake?
  2. Clear messages from Management: Teamwork does not appear with messages like “We’ll have to get along” but having shared goals and respect among tem members avoiding watertight compartments. Are we prizing the “cow-boy”, the “hero” or the professional with the guts to make a hard decision using all the capabilities of the team under his command?
  3. CRM Evaluation from practicioners: Anyone can have a bad day but, if on continuous bases, someone is poorly evaluated by those in the same team, something is wrong, whatever could say the observer in the training process. If someone can think that this is against CRM, think twice:Forget for a moment CRM: Do pilots behave in the same way in a simulator exercise under observation and in a real plane?
  4. Building a teamwork environment: If someone feels that his behavior is problematic, there is a giant step to change. If, by the other side, he sees himself as “the boss” and he is delighted to have met himself, there is not way for a real change.

No shortcuts.CRM is a key for air safety improvement but it requires much more than behavioral markers and exercises where observers and observed people seem to be more concerned about looking polite than about solving problems using the full potential of a team.

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