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Thursday, January 20, 2011

Adventures In Tractor Assembly

Everyone who works in Technical Operations at my airline is required to go to Human Factors Training. It's a two-day course to try to make people more aware that little things can start an accident chain. That's a real loose definition, but it's the best I can do to condense all those hours of training down to one sentence.

On the first day, we were split into five groups of five, given a plastic container with Lego pieces and 3 assembly instruction books, and told to assemble a tractor. Only it wasn't quite that easy. First we had to assign roles to each member of the group. I'm not quite sure how it happened, but I ended up as group leader. We also had an inspector, a wheel and brake guy, a guy who could only assemble black plastic pieces, and another who could only touch pieces that weren't black. Oh! And a materials guy. He was the only one who could hand pieces to those doing the assembly.

The age range according to Lego was 7-13. Surely, five adults (four of whom are airplane mechanics) can assemble something a seven-year-old child could. Even if we were only allowed 45 minutes.

If you said of course, you'd be wrong. :-)

When I mentioned three different instruction books that would be because there were parts for three different products in the box--a race car, a weird motorcycle thing, and our tractor. I grabbed the motorcycle instructions by mistake. The thing looked like a tractor to me. Luckily, I figured it out before we started putting pieces together.

First human factors crisis averted.

Lego does not put words in their instructions. It's all pictures. I do better with words with images as illustrations than with pictures alone. Strike one. Also, I found Lego's images ambiguous on where to attach things. So did my team.

We tried to line up with colors since there were red, blue, gray and green pieces in addition to the black. Lego didn't always show the color or at least we couldn't see it. Lego also would list we needed two pieces of the same type, but only show one being attached in their drawing. That forced us to page ahead trying to see where to put the second piece, and when that wasn't readily findable, guessing. Later, we'd find where the piece went and have to try to fit it on after we'd gone past that stage.

It took a while, but we finally built up some momentum. And then the instructor said shift change. That meant the guy who'd just started figuring things out had to hand off his job to someone else. Not long after this, the instructor started asking how we were doing and when we'd be finished.

This was a human factors element because mechanics would be dealing with this in the hangars. Me? This didn't bother me very much because it's a different mindset in the office--at least to some degree. I did nearly tell the instructor, though, that we'd be done faster if he'd stop bothering us. :-)

The first team finishes their tractor in 35 minutes. It looks like a tractor. I look down at ours. We're still working on the center assembly and looks nothing like a piece of farm equipment. A second group finishes their tractor and a third group right behind them. My group is still working.

Pieces fall off our center assembly when we turn it to add a new Lego. This isn't good.

Time is called. We're not even close to finished.

Our tractor is still only the center assembly and now our work is going to be critiqued. All the guys who finished their tractors had made mistakes on things. Well, I thought, we might not have made it too far, but at least what we did was correct. It wasn't. We'd attached part of the assembly in the wrong place. We failed. Utterly.

Since this is training what were the lessons learned? The big thing was that we should have divided the work and had more than one guy working at a time. I didn't think of that because I like to follow instructions step by step and not jump around. The second thing I learned was that I should never be in charge of a project like this. I have no experience in building things and can't make informed decisions. The only good thing about my being the leader is that I didn't have to do any assembly. Believe me, our tractor would have ended up in worse shape than it was if I had.

On Day Two, we were given a plane crash scenario--we are survivors of a plane crash, but we're in the desert and it's a 135 degrees. Rank the importance of the items you have. Then he told us to work in our tractor teams. My announcement? We're doomed.