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Using Non-Technical Skills as an INPUT Catalyst for a Generative Safety Culture

Updated: Jan 8, 2020


In high productivity driven environments such as aviation maintenance, everything is measured in terms of cost, time and efficiency to ensure the bottom line is maximised. With a range of tools and business models at our fingertips, we can readily look at our inputs, processes and outputs to pin-point areas which can be optimised to improve the bottom line, ultimately leading from group performance – the team. While governance, policy, and process are something which is a heavy focus on ensuring safety is also at the fore-front of our teams, attention also needs to be directed toward organisational culture, and its appetite for change, which ties together aspects of Non-Technical Skills both at the Management and the Working levels. We discuss these dynamics, specific to the Aviation industry, in relation to some of the models used, proposing some key points for the maintenance industry which can be used to enhance performance.

Keywords: Management, Non-Technical Skills, Organisational Culture, Team Performance, Adaptivity


Organisational culture, both at the macro and micro levels, has the ability to influence any high-performance group – when it is harnessed (Hudson, 2000; 2007). Professor Hudson describes organisational culture as ‘who and what we are, what we find important, and how we go about doing things around here’. In the Safety Management System realm, we constantly talk about striving for a ‘generative culture’ where the organisation is observed as encompassing generative attitudes, with people practicing the aspects of ‘informed, reporting, just, flexible and learning’ cultures. Culture can be influenced by management decisions, both positively and negatively, and it needs to be taken into account, particularly when different business models are adapted to improve organisational performance. Take for example, the Input-Process-Output (IPO) model, which was originally developed by McGrath in 1984.


Since 1984, many advancements to the IPO model have been observed, such as the Input-Throughput-Output, and Inputs-Mediators-Outcomes. The key delineator between the dated, versus recent models, is that modern businesses tend to suggest that throughout the maturity of a particular system it will undergo ‘episodic cycles’.

INPUT: Inputs may include: Leaders, team members, team structures, organisation, and work environments.

PROCESS: Process may involve: team dynamics, communication, co-operation, and decision-making.

OUTPUT: Output includes performance, productivity, quality, errors, and accidents, etc.


In contrast with the IPO Model, the Aviation Industry has also used such models as the SHELL, which stands for Software, Hardware, Liveware, and Liveware, which still holds ground in analysing human factors interfaces. Although dated, the SHELL model can be used to analyse key areas of team dynamics, to improve performance outcomes, enhancing both safety and productivity.

In the maintenance environment, we might identify the high-level SHELL components as:

Software: maintenance data and records.

Hardware: the facility, tools and equipment.

Environment: heat, light, noise and vibration.

Liveware: management, customer and government agencies.

Liveware: certified mechanics and support staff.

When we start to look at the IPO and SHELL models, we can begin to understand the cultural nuances, the interfaces between each component, and start to really outline the specific technical and non-technical skills. We can also identify what variable inputs, such as project management roles, cultures and sub-cultures, and quality indicators, can be tweaked to maximise performance outputs.

Input Factors to Optimize Performance

So what can we really do to improve performance? Input factors such as organisational culture and management styles are at the control of Executives, and with that, opportunities are presented at each level of the hierarchy to control these inputs, ensuring that the team is winning. Professor Hudson emphasises that these types of inputs tend to control what we call the generative culture, which encompasses the aspects of being informed, reporting, just, flexible and learning throughout the realm of a ‘safety culture’. In addition to top management commitment, particularly to company policy and procedures, it is also vital for all managers at each level to maintain a commitment to cultural awareness. A recent study conducted by Shanmugam and Robert (2015) asserted that it is essential to capability and safety, for management to maintain an ongoing commitment to all available resources. Therefore support for cultural facets should extend from management into all other areas of the SHELL components (Hawkins, 1993).

There are however, some invariables, particularly in aviation maintenance for example, which includes specific trade qualifications, competencies, and licenses. Where we throw in dynamics such as a maintenance facility, time and cost factors, we need to tweak what we can, under reasonably practicable circumstances, to improve the outputs. This is where training in Non-Technical Skills (NTS) can come in very handy. We can enhance NTS in our teams through building awareness, knowledge and expertise over time (CASA, 2010). NTS or Crew Resource Management as it is known by Aviators and Operators, includes ‘situational awareness, decision making, communication, teamwork, leadership, stress management and coping with fatigue’ (Flin, et al, 2008). While technical expertise is not negotiable, NTS have the capacity to bring a team together for effective and efficient performance while at the same time improving safety and capability yet is not compulsory. You might at this point, assume that your team possess the social skills already – but why is it, that Aviators and Operators, are constantly training and fine-tuning their NTS capabilities?

Similar to the project management environment, the maintenance manager has control over the size of groups, roles, and cohesiveness within the team. The Project manager is akin to a maintenance manager in that they will be involved in the ‘planning, staffing, organisation, leading and controlling aspects of the input factors in the IPO model (Stolzer, Halford & Goglia). One important consideration is that the PM/MM will have to constantly rely on the talents, and abilities of their team, in addition to balancing the constraints of the organisational objectives. So from a system perspective, it starts to make sense and build a case for having NTS within the team environment. Since the PM/MM is always maintaining equilibrium between the personnel, time and cost to meet strategic targets. While the leadership abilities of the PM/MM may be exceptional, they need to balance their resources through effective teamwork, communication and even fatigue management. So at the Input levels, the PM/MM is unsurprisingly critical to the effectiveness of production within their respective teams.

Does this really start to build a case for NTS though?

We must keep in mind. When drastic changes to the dynamics of both management, and teams, may have an impact on safety and capability outputs. When we take a closer look at production-centric organisations, ultimately, we are pushing human abilities to the limit, which may actually lead to a loss of productivity, further errors, accidents, and even impacting customer satisfaction in the service-scape (Flin, et al. 2008). Some common issues such as ‘role conflict, role ambiguity, status, authority, social influence, and group think’ come to mind when team dynamics change in size and structure. Professor Hudson draws on literature from psychology, outlining needs, wants, and motivations for why people should want to adapt to change. However, while it is easy for technicians in aviation to associate change with production, it is less tranquil to identify why it will benefit them individually. So as we start the conversations around why we should be generative in safety culture, we’re actually creating a means for people of those maintenance teams to want to seek continuous improvement, embracing change as their motivation to perform better (Hudson, 2000; 2007). At the same time, if we propose the adoption of a quality management system (QMS), we enable aspects of strategic planning, deployment, and use of quality information systems to better manage production, and ultimately, the output (Stolzer, et al., 2008, p. 88; AS/NZS ISO9000, 2016). The combination of both a generative culture with a quality management system should ensure that variable dynamics, such as teams and management, produce desired output and meet organisational objectives.


For a truly generative culture to evolve, continuously improving, adapting to change, and learning from past mistakes, the following aspects need to be key considerations in a business case for overall improvement, namely:

1. Ensure any Inputs focus on organisational culture, adaptivity to change, and the skills required to assure lasting change.

2. Use models such as the SHELL, to analyse cultural inputs, and interfaces, so that your change management plan is poised to tackle known challenges and uncover unknown latent issues which require attention.

3. The combination of both Technical, and Non-Technical Skills (NTS) needs to be a key consideration in improving team performance.

4. Target pivotal roles such as Maintenance Managers, and Project Managers, with contextualised NTS training, to better drive teams with both safety and capability in mind.

5. Combine the notion of a generative safety culture, with a quality management system, to ensure both quality assurance, and organisational cultures are adaptable for improvement and continuously evolving working conditions, capturing lessons learnt more proactively.

It’s very important to note that key inputs alone will not provide the trajectory for a successful aviation maintenance, or similiar organisation. However, they may provide the momentum necessary for an organization to evolve into the ideal generative culture (Hudson, 2000; 2007).


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