In this episode, professional pilot and corporate trainer Kevin Nothstine talks about how the lessons learned from flying airplanes apply to running a business. This is the first of a 3-part series where we discuss “Running home to momma,” what it means to have your team “on course and on glide path” and how to respond to emergencies or sudden changes.
Kevin Nothstine served 21 years as an Air Force pilot with a deep love for learning and teaching. Kevin flew combat missions in the C-130 and the MC-12. As an instructor pilot he trained hundreds of new pilots in advanced instrument flying in the T-44. As an MC-12 instructor, he trained hundreds of aircrew how to find bad guys and tell the good guys where they are. Kevin continues to fly and teach in the civilian world. After retiring from the Air Force, he caught the entrepreneurial bug and worked with a start-up tech company as the VP of Operations. Kevin is a co-founder of The People Catalysts where he teaches organizations how to be 300 to 800 times more productive. He is also contracted with the Air National Guard and continues to teach other pilots how to fly the MC-12 combat mission. He believes that the day you stop learning is the day you stop living.
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CLEARED FOR TAKEOFF Part 2 of 3
Karla Nelson: And welcome to the People Catalyst podcast Kevin.
Kevin Nothstine: Thank you very much.
Karla Nelson: Glad to have you here today. And so, what we’re going to be talking about today is part two of this three-part series Cleared for Takeoff. And we’re going to talk about control and performance as you shared with me, which as that translate into business key performance indicators. And so, it’s funny we have coined this quote that Kevin has used around the office more times than not, or in strategy meetings that everything he needed to learn about business he learned in pilot training. So, as we’ve been doing our trainings for the last seven or so years, just seeing the correlation between flying an aircraft and running a mission, and business. And so, we are going to talk again about controlling performance, and that’s the pilot speak that in business, we talk about key performance indicators.
What do I need on my dashboard to be able to have the input in order to control the output? And so, Kevin, if you could share with us, what are the either instruments on the plane or what do you use when you’re flying an aircraft to have that control and performance of the aircraft?
Kevin Nothstine: Oh, Karla you’re exactly right about the key performance indicators in business or in pilots speak we call them the control and performance indicators., and this is from very early on in piloting training they teach you this. Now everybody’s seen pictures or seen the inside the cockpit of an airplane. And there’s just an amazing array of instrumentation on the panel that we’re looking at. And you have to know what to look at when, and a way that they teach that is breaking down those instruments into two different categories. One is the control instruments and two is the performance instruments. And what I mean that is your … We’ll start with the performance ones, that’s what most people can think about, and your performance one is “what is your plane doing? What is your airspeed? What is your altitude? How fast are you climbing or how fast are you descending?”
What is the plane actually doing and that is your performance. You see the performance instruments and you analyze what is happening there. And then if you need to make a change, use the control instruments for making a change. The control instruments tell you the items that are within your control. A good example of this is the fuel flow or another one is what your pitch attitude, that’s how high your nose is, or how low Your nose is, or what your bank angle is. You can control those directly like the fuel flow, you control with the throttle. Just like the gas pedal in your car you increase your fuel flow, you put more gas in the engine, you get a bigger fire. And then the net result dependent upon what your pitches is going to be, you’re going to go faster, and it’s a direct result.
You can control exactly what your fuel flow is, or how much you put into it. And then the performance concept is what comes out of it. What’s your airspeed at the other end of that. So, we really teach that as a control and performance concept. Now, a great example on this, the correlation on this when you look in business you have your key performance indicators, and you have different ones on there, your new customers per month of your gross revenue, or how is your growth rate is going to be. And that’s exactly like we just talked about with your fuel flow. In an aircraft I push throttle forward, meaning I put more fuel into the fire of the engines, and I do more.
The equivalent on that is, how much money do I put into my marketing budget? If I put more money into my marketing budget, what’s going to be the performance that comes out on the other side?
Karla Nelson: I love that, because it’s so true. There’re so many times, especially when individuals are planning in their business, right? And they might have these goals. But at the end of the day, if you’re going to sell so much, you have to back that into what are your key performance indicators? What’s going to come out of those things that you can control, because if you can understand the input, and you can understand what comes out of it, then it’s those things that you can affect what’s going into it. And it makes me think of when you brought up marketing as a great one, because what can you control? You can control the number of emails, how many calls you might make, and then it’s the conversion ratio that moves into.
One is the control of the action and the other one is the output of that action, and it’s even can get a little more of a layer deeper to say, for instance the number of emails, that you’re not connecting with the right group or you’re not targeting the right individual or you’re not getting that conversion ratio. Adjusting your control to figure out what the performance is going to be, is absolutely critical. I think one of the things that’s a little bit different here in regard to business is that every business has different KPIs, actually, maybe different aircraft do have KPIs, maybe not on the typical things as you were talking about, what’s your airspeed or altitude or climb rate or … But every business has different inputs and then what is going to happen on the outside. Like, if you’re selling a service manufacturing isn’t a KPI. Why would you track that?
It makes me think of and this is something Allen brings up all the time is a quote by Deming, who obviously he’s a world renown gentleman in regards to the industrial focus in manufacturing. Is that what happens is we want to blame people, instead of blame those things that we can affect the control. There’s a oil on the ground, somebody slips and falls, they want to blame the maintainer, even though that person heard from the CFO or their manager, that the budget was cut created by the CFO, created by the CEO that made a determination in that business so that they could maintain that piece of equipment. And so, 94%, this is what Deming said, 94% of failure is process failure. It is actually coming from what we can control, and then the performance we end up wanting to blame somebody of and he actually came back and said he thought it was closer to 97% is processed failure.
What are your controls? And what is the poor performance coming out of it? And that’s exactly why we start playing the blame game when things aren’t going right in business instead of focusing on your KPIs.
Kevin Nothstine: Oh, yeah, most definitely. And that process as you can well imagine with flying an aircraft is paramount that we ensure that we follow that proper process. A big part of that is flying, using your instruments, having your instrumentation, making sure that they work properly and giving you good information.
Karla Nelson: A huge part of one of the things that we’ve talked about is not only the KPIs but what that impact generates from how people then interact. So, can you share a little bit about the traps that you can hinder your performance? For instance, let me give you an example. And this will probably identify both people and process and everything. And we see this probably, I would say, especially in the military, where your superior is supposed to have complete control almost sometimes, right? In a military situation, your superior tells you to do something, you do it right? Things like that, in regard to like culture and then the traps that can hinder your performance. How do you manage that in regard to flying an aircraft, right? So, if you were flying with your superior or the person that you report to onboard, how do you manage that challenge that really could affect the KPI too?
Kevin Nothstine: That’s a great question, and it’s the exact thing that you were talking about with the example from Deming, where you have that person on the floor that had the oil spill, and needs to be able to talk about, “Hey, the process problem came about because of the reduced funding for the maintenance of the machine. And that came about because the CFO change priorities and the direction of CEO,” so you can trace that right back. So, you’re exactly right that how the interaction happens there. Now to be able to answer this, I’m going to give you some of the traps that are talked about, and where this comes from is inside of the Air Force Special Operations Forces, a concept that teaches crew resource management or CRM. And that’s all about how the crew interact and accomplish their mission, and using all your resources available to get the job done or in our cases to fly the aircraft.
In one of the parts of crew resource management is those traps that can hinder performance in there. A big one on there just like you were talking about, you’re flying with your supervisor there. That could be a big one, that can be a problem. And a problem that can come from that what they call a specific trap is called excessive professional courtesy. And I got a great story to tell you that on that note, well, fortunately, there’s no negative outcome on it. But it was very indicative of what happened.
About 20 years ago, I was flying a C-130. I was the copilot in the right seat, and actually my supervisor was in the left seat and he’s also an instructor pilot. And we’re in a formation and the lead aircraft, we were number two, and the lead aircraft in front of us was actually the Operations Group Commander. So, it was I had my supervisor in the seat next to me, his supervisors, supervisor was in the plane in front of us. So yeah, so we’re flying along we’re at night, and we had to descend to a lower altitude. We’re training to do an airdrop. Now fortunately, this night we only had training bundles, we were dropping a 15-pound sandbag. And we had to descend to a lower altitude, we were going to go down about 1500 feet lower than what we had been flying to drop the sandbags.
Well, we started the decent, lead said when to go and they started their descent, and we’re following them down. And they leveled off after only descending about 500 feet. And we went down and continued down to the lower altitude of 1500 feet. And we looked at the lead plane, and they were exactly 1000 feet high from where they needed to be. And this is my boss’s boss’s boss that’s up there in front of me, and he’s 1000 feet high. And we’re getting closer and I and I call it out, and I let my aircraft commander listen. I said, “Hey, lead is too high for this drop.” And he goes, “Yeah, I thank you’re right.” And I said, “We need to tell him. He’s about to drop this sandbag, and we’re down here behind him. This is an unsafe situation.” He goes, “Yeah, you’re right.” Because I’m going to go ahead and climb back up.”
So, we climbed back up and went closer to his altitude and then we called a no drop and we didn’t drop our sandbag, but we never said anything to the lead aircraft. Well, after the flight, we came back and we’re in the debrief and it goes all around and it got to that point of the mission. And the Operations Group commander, the senior leader up in the front, got there and said, “Hey, you guys called a no drop. You didn’t drop your handbag. Why not?” And still, my supervisor didn’t say anything at the point in the debrief. And finally, I brought it up and said, “Hey, sir, you were exactly 1000 feet high.”
And at first he didn’t believe it, but then when we talked about it, he understood and said, “Oh, yeah, you’re right.” The very next thing he said was, “Why didn’t any of you tell me about it?” And he was extremely upset about that. And my aircraft commander, the guy in the left seat with me was showing that excessive professional courtesy of not wanting to tell his boss’s boss that he was exactly a thousand feet high, and I made the exact same mistake. I had a radio right there in front of me. I could have just as easily hit the radio and called a no drop and let them know that because there’s an unsafe situation.
Now, nobody got hurt from this one. And what they teach in our CRM is a solution for this is aggressive skepticism. So when you have that excessive professional courtesy, if every individual is applying aggressive skepticism, which means always check and double check what’s going on, and a great way they teach you about doing this is ask questions. Instead of totally calling out a senior leader, or somebody else and call them out and say, “Hey, you’re wrong.” You can ask questions to them and say, “Hey, what’s your altitude? It looks like you’re too high.” or something like that in that example.
Karla Nelson: That’s good stuff. I’ve never seen anything like this in business. Well it’s interesting because I think that’s a huge trap that thankfully, we’ve been able to make some strides with in business, only because they focus on even like Scrum in technology is, “Oh, we need everybody.” But the challenge I think is not only is it the boss is always right or, being taught that you have to be a yes person, and everybody’s going to respond a little bit different in relation to the hoodoo method, whether you’re a shaker, a mover, a prover, or a maker. And number one I really like asking questions, but with a shaker remember we talked to the run home to mama on the on the first part of this series, and so if you haven’t heard that go back and listen to it.
Because shakers are going to come up with a new idea in business, movers a lot of times plan to plan because everything needs to be perfect and they’re too busy doing and not necessarily facilitating the process forward. Provers are poking all the holes in it and they’re run home to mommy is to not move and to freeze. And makers they’re like deer in the headlights when things like that happen, because it can be in an uncomfortable situation. So, I really like that, ask questions is a great way. Because instead of saying, “Hey, you’re wrong.” Saying something like, “Hey, are we, practicing what we preach here? Are we utilizing the method, have we worked this all the way through?” And just asking a question is a great lead in where you’re not jumping on somebody for having a mishap, but I don’t think a sandbag hitting your aircraft midair would have been a really good thing. I’m mean at a low altitude it’s probably even worse right?
Kevin Nothstine: No, it’s another one like we talked about last week on the good bad scale, that would be bad.
Karla Nelson: With that said, how do most accidents … In business no one’s gonna die, so well obviously there’s medical things and other … those are not typical business scenarios but, most businesses you make a mistake you might lose money you might have some challenges associated with it. You might have to close your business, worst case scenario. But typically, nobody’s, going to really get hurt from a mishap. How do most aircraft Accidents happen, and how can we look at that and apply those to how … Because if we looked at our businesses as closely as you do and your KPIs and your performance indicators, what you can control, and really being meticulous about that, instead of being so focused on doing. What can we learn? What are the parallels associated with those mistakes? And how long it takes you before you’re doing a course correction?
Kevin Nothstine: Well, I tell you that’s a really good point. And, like we said in the intro, everything I need to know about business I learned in pilot training. One of the things that we do in pilot train in our discussions, is we actually try to learn from previous mistakes from other people’s mistakes. Early on when I started pilot training, one of the … We do case studies, and one of the case studies that they taught us about was the story of Eastern Airlines Flight 401. This is many years ago that this happened. I believe it was back in the ‘70s. It really shows this trap, it’s another one of these traps in that special ops command crew resource management that is called the error chain. And what the error chain is the fact that there’s a series of errors or poor judgments or poor decisions that lead up to an accident.
In this particular story, this Eastern Airlines Flight 401, they’re coming in for landing down in Florida over the Everglades and they’re down about 2000 feet, and they want to put their gear down. Well inside the cockpit we have indicators that tell us when you put the gear down and let you know that yes, your gear is down. So, they they’re looking for three green lights to tell them yes, all the landing gears are down and ready for them to land. Well one of those green lights the bulb burnt out. They have little 20 cent bulb that burned out, and what happened? Everyone was focused on this bulb. On this plane they had two pilots and a flight engineer that were up in the cockpit and they all started looking. The pilot is looking at, and they’re pressing on it, they’re pressing it, and the other pilot was pressing on it.
And the captain, they guy in the left seat said, “Hey, first sponsor you go ahead engage autopilot, and then we’re going to look at this.” So, first officer engaged autopilot, he did but at some point the autopilot became disengaged. They’re leveled 2000 feet but the autopilot became disengaged and nobody was paying attention of flying the airplane. So, everybody got involved in looking at this bulb and discussing what was going on there. Even to the point that they said. “You know what, we can check and see if the gears down. We can go down under the flight deck and look through a little panel and see through the window if the gear’s down.” They sent the flight engineer down into this whole to go check the gear down below, so he’s not on the flight deck anymore so they’re down to two people, and both of them are focused on this bulb with nobody flying the plane.
Well the plane started descending, the autopilot became disengaged at some point and started descending. And there’s a warning tone that went off saying, “Hey your altitude is going … Altitude warning, altitude warning.” But that warning was only at that third persons console, and the other two weren’t paying close attention to what was going on, and they didn’t hear it. Well then air traffic control noticed on the radar that the aircraft was descending, and they came over the radio, and they said, “How’s your altitude?” They didn’t say you’re 200 feet low and descending when they’re only 2000 feet above the ground didn’t get something like that. Well the long story short, they kept on focusing on this, and it wasn’t until about 10 seconds from the aircraft was going to hit the ground, that they actually looked up and notice that nobody was flying the plane.
And fortunately, 75 people did survive the crash. But that was out of 173 people. So 98 people lost their lives because everybody that was supposed to be taking care of things, were focused on a 20-cent bulb and were not paying attention to detail. So it’s a rather horrific tragedy that comes from this, but that’s that error chain that can happen from each thing. How can you keep from having a tragedy like that happen? Well early on when you see something if you’re not sure what’s going on, call a timeout. And that’s what we teach in aircraft is call a timeout. When you’re doing something if anybody says timeout, it means hey everybody focus on what’s going on, and we always breathe, and the first thing you do is maintain aircraft control, we’re going to fly the plane and look at where you are and make sure that you’re safe flying the plane first, making that priority happen.
And so, we teach that as a tool of a timeout to try and break that error chain early on before it gets into a tragedy happened. In this process you can see the plane captain made the mistake of focusing on the 20-cent bulb and not flying the plane and pass it off to somebody else. The guy he passed it off to make the mistake of not paying attention to the plane and he was getting on there. When the third person was sent down below too early, and they didn’t think about what they’re losing by sending that guy away. And when air traffic controller had given them an inadequate warning. Every one of these are errors that could have been broken up early on before having a tragedy happened.
Karla Nelson: That’s really a good point on the Deming thing I brought up before is, that was process failure, right? They didn’t do their appropriate process. And it’s so quick to like, judge and go, “Hey, wait a second, that one guy did this. And that one guy did this.” It was a process that was broken over time as the error chain was happening. And it’s interesting, because then you apply that to your run home to mommy. And if you don’t do a timeout to make sure that happens, I mean, things can go south pretty darn quickly there. And it reminds me when we facilitate games that we play to learn the who new method, and we teach a process, right? And then we introduce something. And of course, we’re trying to get them to forget to learn the process, or we want them to use it and then understand how incredible it is.
But inevitably we can do three different games in consecutive … I think this particular one that I’m thinking of was six weeks long, once a week for three hours a day. We kept on giving them these games, and they just feel like they have to go, and they have to start doing something right? You have to do … Instead of just my goodness, if they would have paid attention to the plane, they could have just had the plane even doing donuts for a while they’re trying to figure out what’s going to happen right? Sometimes I think the wanting to take action so quickly, and we all know the 80/20 rule and most of the time 80% is spent doing and 20% is spent planning. And we over and over again it is way better to utilize your team spend 80% planning utilizing the process, get all buy in, get all the different core natures of work and then spend 20% time executing. Because it saves time, energy, effort.
In this case, my goodness, it could have saved a ton of lives. So obviously we don’t run into that in business as much. But we just see that over and over and over. And remembering that the KPIs are much more well thought out, utilizing not only the entire team, but realizing it’s not just about taking action now, and needing to get done. And when you think about that a shaker is a thinker and so is a prover. And a mover is a doer, and a maker is a doer. So, think how both of … all of those individuals would respond differently and how that could still affect the error chain, no matter how you look at it, because of those no running home to mommy.
And our core nature we’re gonna … if we’re not trained to have and I know you brought up a couple of those tools, then we’re always just going to go back to what we know and what we have been trained. It’s one of the things about the military that I just think it’s awesome. You guys spend your time training, and so when it comes time to execute, you have a lot of tools in your toolbox, which I don’t think is nearly as much as a lot of business owners have in their toolbox, because you have been trained. And even look when you’ve been trained how that error chain can affect in not understanding and what are those indicators.
I mean, they had every indicator in the cockpit that was telling them what was going on. But they were so focused on something else that they weren’t aware.
Kevin Nothstine: Oh, yeah, you’re exactly right. When you talk about the 80% planning and 20% execution, just so many different times that I’ve seen that. We’ve talked about that in the military. We plan, plan, plan our mission and brief the mission before we actually go and fly it. It’s the same thing. A long time ago back in another life I got a degree in computer science, and one of the things they talked about in their and our education was the cost of fixing a problem in your software. The earlier you find it, the cheaper it’s going to be. If you identify those errors much earlier which is exactly what the who do process is made to do. Is to identify the potential flaws and to come up with the best solution before you ever even think about implementing that solution.
If they would have done that on this plane, they could have very well saved people’s lives, if they were to spend a little bit of time talking about, “Okay, here’s going to be the roles and responsibilities, and we gotta monitor our KPIs, we got to make sure we’re monitoring the performance of this aircraft before we have a rather tragic problem.”
Karla Nelson: Yeah, and one of the other pieces just for a quick review of the who-do method is you have to really take a different look between strategy and tactics. One is a big picture view and one is a 2500-foot view. So, understanding who is going to do that better, strategically having, the shakers come up with, “Well what should we do?” And then the movers pick the best idea or set of ideas. But I think what you were leaning towards here Kevin to, is that really leaning into your provers as well, that really can fail an idea and concept form as long as they don’t get tunnel vision. As long as they don’t like in this situation focus on a bulb, because the likelihood most pilots are going to be provers or a combination of a prover or a shaker is just probably highly likely.
So that’s one of the fail safe or one of the challenges I think you can have, is when you’ve got a whole bunch of people that have the same core nature of work, you can get tunnel vision and you actually forget that there’s a bigger picture going on here, and that we need everybody to have a certain part and role in doing that and in business, just like flying an aircraft.
Kevin Nothstine: Oh, exactly right. I think really, I’ve seen here today that, everything I need to know about business I learned pilot training, and look forward to continuing to talk about this.
Karla Nelson: Yeah, and I’m pretty sure we could continue on and on and on, because there’s so many aspects obviously of business as well as flying an aircraft. But definitely know your KPIs, understanding what those are. And then the control in performance. What can you affect change, what can you control, and what is the output from those effects, are obviously very, very important in both flying an aircraft as well as in running a business. Make sure you join us for part three of this series, Cleared for Takeoff. Where we are going to discuss something absolutely monumental, not only in the first two parts of this series that we have recorded here with Kevin, but in every aspect of your business, personal and professional, and that will be communication.
Obviously if you’re a pilot, you better have good communication skills, especially with what you do with flying the type of plane that you fly with, because you have so many different individuals to communicate in the stack. Kevin, thanks again. We really appreciate it.
Kevin Nothstine: Oh, it’s my pleasure, and I’m looking forward to the next one.
Karla Nelson: Awesome.