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Activity 3

Aeroplane engine maintenance facility

During the 80s the engine maintenance facility of a leading international airline carrier was described as ‘an industrial relations mine field’. The facility operated two shifts, five days per week and employed approximately 600 people—the vast majority of whom were in operational positions.

The airline industry generally was facing increasing competition from cut-priced operators who were encroaching into traditional operator’s market share, and from spiralling fuel prices. This particular airline had to find more efficient ways of working if they were to remain competitive. However, in the maintenance facility conflict was rife with a distinct us and them attitude between the workers and the management and a reluctance to engage in meaningful dialogue or indeed any compromise regarding work issues. Previous initiatives to improve communication and teamwork had failed; stifled by mistrust and fear.

The airline undertook a significant and radical change program that had at its heart a commitment to engage workers at every level in providing input about the role of the unit and about how work is performed. The new strategy also encompassed a new management structure and a new business plan but significantly it was the first time that people of all levels were invited to contribute ideas.

Many declined or ignored the invitation but this was accepted as part of transforming the culture into one of a high performing team.

The new business plan was written, and it included many of the ideas and suggestions raised by workers. For the first time each person, regardless of their position, had a clear reason for the existence of the facility. The business plan was then translated into operational goals and objectives and communicated to the workforce. A heavy emphasis was placed on it being our plan and the single most dominant theme was teamwork and workplace harmony.

As a result work is conducted in a nicer atmosphere and statistics such as sick leave indicate that productivity has increased. Discussions are underway to look at changing some of the previously taboo structures that lock the airline into performing tasks in certain ways, for example typical shift patterns, break times and overlaps. While the new team culture is only in its infancy the fact that the practice of involving people in processes and subsequent decisions has become routine provides a solid foundation on which a high performing team can be built.

Consider the scenario. Identify the factors that previously held the maintenance department back from operating as a team and describe the existing culture before changes were made.

Describe the characteristics of a high performing team. Describe the steps that the airline took to help the engine maintenance department become a high performing team and comment on how easy or hard these practices would have been to implement. How effective do you think they were in achieving their goal? Suggest additional strategies that could have been used to change the team culture given this industrial environment

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