In our daily routine, to assume is to trust. I assume my gas gauge is correct when starting my drive to work. It always has been. I assume the other car will stop at the intersection. He has a stop sign. I assume my co-workers are rested, attentive and ready to work. That’s what they get paid for. I assume my tools are calibrated, maintained, and accurate.
We live with assumptions (that is, trust) because we are not able to verify the competence of every person and thing we interact with every day.
If we had to run down every answer to all the questions before we acted, we would never make it out of our house. But while assumptions are necessary, we must not abandon skepticism altogether. If the gas gauge is fluctuating, if the driver is coming into the intersection too fast, if my workers are yawning, I have the right to question my original assumption. And I should.
Odie tells the story of Scott Porter, an F-16 pilot with a non-pilot (a doctor) in his back seat. They were flying low and fast when the aircraft started rolling slightly with no pilot input. Scott assumed (correctly) the back seater was interfering with the flight controls. He assumed (incorrectly) the back seater had his feet on the rudder pedals. The more urgently Scott told the Doc to keep his feet off the rudders the worse the control issues became until the jet became uncontrollable at an altitude too low to safely eject. Both men were fatally wounded in the ejection attempt.
As aviators we do not point fingers at others without pointing multiple fingers back at ourselves. Any of us can make the same mistake under similar circumstances–especially in this case.
Scott Porter taught Odie how to fly T-38s in the Air Force and pinned on his wings. Scott was also a friend of mine from our academy days. But even Scott, the best of the best, was a victim of a wrong assumption taken too far. The Doc did not have his feet on the rudders. He was so compliant with Scott’s instruction that his feet were pulled all the way back and his long legs were pushing toward the sidewall of the cockpit and against the side stick controller causing a maximum deflection command to the electronic flight control computers. Scott could not feel the stick interference because the F-16 stick senses pressure with no mechanical feedback.
These men died doing their jobs as best they could.
A bad assumption led to the wrong correction which made the problem worse.
It most definitely could have been me. But we don’t spill blood without trying to learn from it, and here is what hindsight tells me. When things stop going according to our assumptions we are witnessing a leading indicator of a problem. “My feet are not on the rudder pedals”. Then what? In our business, we call a knock-it-off and climb away from the ground. This is what Scott should have done right away (remember, this is hindsight) to create time to solve the miscommunication while getting to a safe ejection altitude.
Now think about your job. What do you assume about the fitness of your equipment? What do you assume about the fitness of your coworkers? What are some leading indicators you might notice when people or processes are not performing as expected? How do you stop the work? What terms do you use to make sure everyone knows you mean business?