Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Load Shedding: A Valuable Skill for Pilots and Leaders

Professional aviators often use a term called “load shedding.” The term actually has two meanings. The most commonly understood definition refers to reducing demands on the aircraft’s electrical system when part of that system fails. Load shedding can also apply to the human condition. In this context, it describes the act of reducing demands on one’s self (or one’s team) in a high-workload situation.
The concept of load shedding did not originate in aviation. It has long been a tool of electrical engineers and utility company personnel. Consider “rolling blackouts” used by power companies during periods of extremely high demand for electricity. That is a form of load shedding.
Within aviation, load shedding of the human variety is especially useful in single pilot operations where no copilot is aboard to share flight duties. Understanding when, what and how to load shed is a skill that can benefit all pilots. Although it may be a foreign term to most people who lack aviation knowledge, the principles of load shedding within in the human factors framework can also be extremely valuable for leaders.
Since load shedding reduces the demands on one’s self, wouldn’t it make sense to do it all the time? The simple answer is no, because shedding specific tasks may require that they are not performed at all. A skilled aviator or a talented leader knows when, what and how to load shed.
1.    Know when to load shed: In a high workload situation such as an emergency, intense focus is required and above all else, the pilot must concentrate on flying the airplane. Load shedding can also be warranted in non-critical situations. For example, at the end of a long day, or when flying a nighttime approach to an unfamiliar airport, a savvy pilot will recognize that situational demands, combined with his or her physical state may call for load shedding. Distractions and nonessential tasks must be set aside to ensure maximum attention on non-negotiable tasks.
CG Rendering - Eastern Flight 401
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Leaders can apply load-shedding techniques when multiple high priorities present themselves or staffing levels are inadequate to meet expected outcomes. Load shedding may be valuable to align the team’s resources to execute a new project with an imminent deadline, or when a key staff member falls ill. 
2.    Know what to load shed: Identifying the tasks that must be performed above all else may seem obvious, but indeed, this is not always the case. Recall the unfortunate fatal crash of Eastern Airlines Flight 401, in December 1972. Despite the presence of three seasoned, skilled pilots in the cockpit, the airplane crashed into the Florida Everglades due to a faulty landing gear indicator bulb. The crew became so immersed in determining why an indicator light was inoperative that they failed to fly the airplane.
Fortunately, the stakes are rarely as high for most leaders. The determination of the activities that can be load shedded can be made by assessing the consequences of deferring or disregarding each assignment or task. A series of simple questions can help to make this assessment:
a.    If the activity is not performed, or not performed right now, will the organization, its employees or its customers suffer?
b.    Will load shedding the activity negatively affect the reputation of the leader or the team?
c.    Will the project be significantly harmed if the activity is load-shedded?
As leaders, we can become so driven for results that we neglect to regularly assess the value-add of the underlying tasks. Understanding and applying the concepts of load shedding can avoid the consequences of burnout, undue stress or disengagement caused by self-imposed, unrealistic demands on one’s self or one’s team.
3.    Know how to load shed: Consider an air charter pilot, flying an airplane without a sealed cockpit. In this setting, it is common for passengers to rise from their seats during flight to ask a question or two of the pilot. In the event of an unexpected problem, understandably curious or anxious passengers may clamor for dialogue with the pilot. Under these circumstances, though, the pilot must load shed conversation with passengers, but do so in a manner that will not add to already heightened concern.
In leadership situations, effectively load shedding tasks may require gaining support from key stakeholders who will be impacted by deferring or disregarding an activity. A leader must, at a minimum, communicate the reason for inaction and share his or her evaluation that resulted in the decision to load shed a specific activity.
Load shedding isn’t just for electrical engineers, aviators and leaders. The concept can be useful for anyone who finds him or herself feeling overloaded and unable to focus on critical tasks. Pause to assess each demand and carefully determine the impact of deferring or disregarding each one. Identifying activities that can be load shedded without significant negative impact will help to redirect attention and energy to the essential tasks that are non-negotiable.
Recommended readings for this post are The Ghost of Flight 401, by John G. Fuller and Organizing for Success, by Kenneth Zeigler. The former is an interesting look into the crash mentioned in this blog (and in particular, a series of eerie events that occurred after the crash.) The latter is a set of simple, practical tools to support leaders in the load shedding process. 

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