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Anders Ellerstrand: Procedures 2 – As a “Memory Aid”

Procedures have an important role to play – as a ‘memory aid’. This is especially true when you run into an unusual situation, perhaps an emergency. For emergencies, and other unusual situations, it is common that the procedures to follow, are written as checklists.

This is especially helpful in cases where a number of different tasks is to be completed, where the sequence is important and where it is crucial that no item is omitted. Examples could be the shutting down or restarting large systems.

I’m not a professional pilot, but I have spent some time in airliner cockpits and my impression is that almost everything is done using checklists, an efficient way to assist with consistency and making sure no item is omitted.

However, the role of procedures as the organisational memory, is not limited to emergency checklists. During my career as an Air Traffic Controller, I have seen this often. There is a discussion about the proper way to handle a certain situation. Someone goes to fetch the ops manual, to find the page where the procedure is explained. There could still be a discussion, whether that really is the best way, but establishing what is the currently valid procedure usually ends the discussion. The only difference I’ve seen over the years is that the thick ops manual binder is today replaced by a computer and a screen.

One problem here is that emergency checklists are hopefully not used too often. Things might change in the systems or in connected systems. It is not always easy to realise that such changes could affect the actions needed to be performed in emergencies or other unusual situations. An effect could be that the checklists become partially outdated. I have seen such examples, but the effect of it was not serious, because as so often, humans are able to adapt. In this case, the actions in the checklist were changed, to fit with the new environment, a report was written, and the checklist was later updated. With a good outcome there was not too much fuzz about it. One could wonder what would have happened if the adaption had led to an incident…

Another aspect is that the importance of procedures as memory aids is not as pronounced with those procedures that are frequently used. The actions performed several times each day are rarely, if ever, invoking a check with the written procedures. Any ‘drift’ when it comes to the application of such procedures is typically done in incremental steps over a long period of time and thus rarely noticed. When, after a long time, this drift has left to a considerable deviation, you might still believe you are working strictly in accordance with the procedures. In these cases, you typically don’t use the procedures as a memory aid.

The use of procedures as ‘memory aids’ is important and of value, but not without problems.

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