Posted by: Korry | November 7, 2011

The Power of Standardization

Think for a moment about all the teams you’ve ever been a part of at work or elsewhere. What made them successful? Was it easier to work in a small team or a large team? Now imagine your team had over 12,000 people on it and you had to work with a different person on the team every time you showed up to work. Could the team really function that way? Could you succeed?

For airlines such as Delta, the world’s largest airline, their team of pilots is over 12,000 members strong, according to With computer-based preferential bidding systems like the ones I wrote about here and here, pilots are lucky if they fly together on two or three trips in an entire career let alone in a single month, and yet somehow, on any given flight, on thousands of flights per day, randomly paired pilots work together seamlessly, safely, and without incident even through complicated emergency situations, all without knowing virtually anything about the other pilot.

How can this be? How can such a critical team function at such high levels without really knowing each other? The answer is simple: Standardization.

Standardized procedures. Standardized callouts. Standardized emergency procedures. Standardized everything. Virtually everything about the way pilots do their job is standardized.

Don’t believe me? Try reading through the operations manual for my current airplane, the Boeing 737. There are 426 pages of normal procedures including, among other things, 12 whole pages devoted entirely to describing the specific flow, format and content of preflight briefings of flight attendants and other pilots. Bedtime reading anyone? There are hundreds more pages of procedures to use if dozens upon dozens of various abnormal situations occur. And if this weren’t enough, there’s another manual that is hundreds of pages long that governs company procedures that apply to all pilots, not just those on specific aircraft. It’s a lot to learn, and that’s why initial pilot training is roughly two months long, but it’s worth it for the sake of building incredibly safe pilot teams.

I have a feeling you may think this flies in the face of almost everything we’ve learned about building high performance teams in sports or business, right? I mean, baseball pitchers need to develop rapport with their catchers. Football quarterbacks need to learn exactly where their receivers like to have the ball thrown so they can catch it. And in business, executives spend incredible amounts of time and resources on team building exercises at off-site retreats to learn the strengths and weaknesses of different members. 

To me, the main difference is that athletes and business executives often thrive on their uniqueness to succeed; whereas, pilots thrive on their similarities. A pitcher is a great pitcher because he can throw a curveball in a way that is harder to hit than any other pitcher. A business executive makes millions because her unique talents and abilities make her distinctly qualified for a particular role within an organization.

For pilots, however, I’m guessing you probably don’t want variability and uniqueness. I suspect you want tried and true, replicable results. You want the steadiness and peace of mind that comes with knowing that all the pilots are conducting their flights in the same way that has produced incredibly safe flights over and over again, for days, weeks, months and years on end. And because of that, the manuals are hundreds of pages long and the training is expensive and lengthy…and worth every single penny because it makes the flying public safe.

Sometimes in life there are times when we need uniqueness and variability, and then there are times when standardization provides a formula for success. I believe we all make the choice to standardize certain aspects of our life without even thinking about it. For instance, I bet most of you get ready in the morning the same way, every single day, week after week. Why? Because it works and you find it to be the most efficient use of your time. I do the same thing in hotel rooms. In order to not forget things, I always put my wallet, passport, uniform, clothing, toiletries, etc. in exactly the same general place in every single hotel room I ever stay in. I’ve developed my own habits that help me succeed. The airlines would call these habits standard operating procedures.

Are there areas of your life that could benefit from being standardized? For instance, do you have a standardized way of balancing your checkbook or handling financial record keeping? What about building your grocery list, sorting the mail, or other routine household things? Sure, standardization isn’t good for everything in our lives, but for some things, it may be just the type of structure we need to succeed.



  1. […] personality and unique way of running the cockpit. Sure, our procedures are highly standardized, but the Captain still sets the tone, and that tone can vary a LOT! Once you are the captain, you […]

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