The term ‘Critical Thinking’ is as an important skill for academic studies and scientific research; however it is not often used in aviation legislation or literature. In this article, I aim to discuss the role of critical thinking skills with a view to achieving competency of staff working in Continuing Airworthiness Management Organisations (CAMOs).
In order to put things into context, it is essential to start defining the two terms ‘Competence’ and ‘Critical Thinking’. ISO defines ‘Competence’ as the ‘demonstrated ability to apply knowledge and skills’. One can be considered as ‘competent’ not only by gaining knowledge through theoretical training and learning skills through practical training but also applying them correctly. Whilst there are numerous definitions of the term ‘Critical Thinking’, for the purpose of this article, the following definition from Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal will be used. Critical Thinking is “a composite of attitudes, knowledge and skills. This composite includes:
(1) attitudes of inquiry that involve an ability to recognize the existence of problems and an acceptance of the general need for evidence in support of what is asserted to be true;
(2) knowledge of the nature of valid inferences, abstractions, and generalizations in which the weight or accuracy of different kinds of evidence are logically determined; and
(3) skills in employing and applying the above attitudes and knowledge.”
Fig 1. Critical Thinking Skills
It is interesting to note the similarities in both definitions of ‘critical thinking’ and ‘competence’; it is also perhaps an indication of the necessity to consider critical thinking as a required skill for aviation professionals.
The continuing airworthiness tasks listed in EASA Part M.A.301 (such as development and review of maintenance programs; review, assessment and planning of ADs & SBs; dealing with modifications, evaluating and verifying maintenance tasks / checks carried out by in-house as well as contracted maintenance organisations …………..) sometimes do require significantly different skills and competencies. For example, an excellent inspector, who can perform all the maintenance tasks perfectly on the aircraft, may not always have the necessary skills to perform some of the continuing airworthiness tasks. Equally someone who has all the required skills necessary within the CAMO environment may not necessarily be a good certifying engineer / technician. It should never be forgotten that the chain is only as strong as the weakest link and achieving airworthiness and flight safety requires a total system approach. A certifying engineer can be the last defence to prevent an accident due to a design flaw and equally maintenance errors can be avoided by human-centric design and robust CAMO processes focusing on human factors and maintainability.
The recently published documents and reports such as ‘European Aviation Safety Plan’, ‘CAP 800 UK Safety Performance’ and ‘IATA 2010 Safety Report’, which were the result of detailed analysis of accidents, incidents and reportable events, demonstrate that airworthiness and maintenance are not amongst the major concerns such as flight operations, ATC and ground operations; however airworthiness related issues still remain as causal factor. Perhaps this is due to the huge effort made within the last decade and it is an achievement of all people involved in airworthiness activities in the industry; however the potential complacency is the danger that this achievement may cause. The other challenge this result has created is that as the safety performance gets better, it is much more difficult to make improvements. It requires more resources and in some cases perhaps a different approach and innovation. Therefore as well as approved design and maintenance organisations, CAMO’s will also need to re-think their role in improving safety. As the SMS requires a total system approach, the following are essential for implementation:
- Effective communication between engineering and operations instead of silo management
- Data driven approach that can enable the organisation to predict the next potential accident / incident
- Robust risk management process that sometimes requires to think about the unthinkable without any data or evidence
Although the data analysis can help the organisation to identify high risk areas, it is equally important not to be ‘a slave to statistics’ because as the organisations improve their safety performances, the trend analysis may identify regular events but not necessarily the single pre-cursor that can cause the next accident. This also means that every person involved in continuing airworthiness activities needs to have a much more proactive approach and risk assessments must not only be the task of safety department or managers but also they should be part of the day to day decision making process. Of course a central risk management process including risk assessments is an integral part of the organisation but the individuals can also assist the management in this challenging task.
There are a number of case studies, which demonstrate how CAMO staff can receive conflicting information and perhaps why they may need to use critical thinking skills to evaluate such information and make informed and rational decisions, can be viewed at the online (narrated) version of the presentation given at the recent IFA Technical Forum.
In conclusion, the Quality Management principles as well as the European regulations (EASA Part M.A.706) require organisations to establish and control competence of all staff involved in the continuing airworthiness management activities. Of course, training is a pre-requisite for achieving competency; however staff must also have the necessary skills to be able to use the knowledge gained through theoretical training. In maintenance organisations, this can be achieved by on-the-job training, working under supervision and many other ways; however considering the nature of the tasks that CAMO staff has to perform, achieving competency may require the organisation to consider other skills such as critical thinking for positions within CAMO’s. This can be included in the training programs for existing personnel and also changing job descriptions to include ‘critical thinking’ as a required skill should be considered.
EC Regulation 2042/2003 (EASA Part M)
Watson Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal (WGCTA)
This article was originally published in IFA News Extra in 2011 and it has been updated (very few small changes) before it has been posted here.