Why Non-technical Skills Matter – A Lot – When It Comes to Preventing Errors and Accidents

In safety-critical fields such as aviation, nuclear energy, and healthcare, employees’ technical skills are naturally important. We want our surgeons to know how to conduct surgery properly. But we often fail in these settings to recognize the equal importance of non-technical skills (NTS), such as situational awareness, communication, coordination, problem solving and teamwork.

Last fall, I presented at a master class of the Canadian Network for Agencies of Regulation (CNAR). There, we had the pleasure of hearing Rhona Flin – a psychologist from the University of Aberdeen who works with safety-critical industries – speak about NTS. I have included here a Ted talk by Ms. Flin about this subject.

Much of the work on NTS originated with aviation investigations of the 1970s and 80s, such as the runway collision of two 747s on the island of Tenerife in 1977, which to this day remains the most deadly collision in aviation history. The accident investigators in that case did not find technical problems with either of the jets involved, nor did they find any deficiencies in the technical skills of their aircrews. What they did find was a tragic series of coincidences compounded by non-technical problems, including miscommunications between the jets and air traffic control, hesitation of the KLM cockpit to confirm their takeoff status, and impatience on the part of the KLM captain, leading him to take off in heavy fog without proper clearance. The fully-fuelled KLM jet struck a taxiing Pan Am 747 on the runway, setting off explosions and killing 583 people.

The Tenerife investigation, along with several others from that era, eventually led to significant changes in cockpit resource management and training to focus on communication, coordination, leadership and decision making. These procedures were later renamed crew resource management (CRM), to include ground and cabin crews, and the concept has been generalized for other settings such as oil rigs and operating rooms.

I am convinced that safety-critical industries are not the only enterprises that can benefit from CRM. All businesses have something to learn from the excellent work done by air crash investigators and aviation firms over the years, to highlight the importance of NTS in preventing error.