Coincidentally while I was winging my way to Japan a few days ago, fellow lean blogger Mark Graban wrote an interesting piece on technology and poka yoke in the context of aircraft.
This reminded me of something I read on the way home. USA Today (via a WSJ Blog) reported that the recent airliner crash in Spain was caused by the pilots forgetting to set the flaps properly for takeoff. This was human error. But…. the technology failed them. The warning system (a "poka yoke" of sorts) failed to sound an alarm before takeoff, leading to the crash. The USA Today reports that this same error (forgetting to set the flaps) has occurred 50 times in the US recently… but the warning system worked.
Of course that made me feel good, being on a lot of planes and such this week. While on approach into Narita I came across another example where a good poka yoke is needed: tower communication. The geek in me likes to listen to the pilot/tower communication on channel 9 on United, and this time I almost wish I hadn't listened in. The tower guys were providing landing instructions in English, but with suvch a heavy Japanese accent that I had a very hard time understanding them. I thought this probably wasn't that big of a deal since the pilots and tower guys were probably used to communicating this way, used a relatively small number of phrases, and knew the routes and landing patterns.
Until I heard a Northwest pilot nearby have to ask the tower controller to repeat his instructions three times before it was understood. And a minute later hearing an Aeromexico pilot trying to communicate in heavily Spanish-accented English with the heavily Japanese-accented English tower controller.
There's got to be a better, safer way. If cops can communicate to squad cars using electronic messages to onboard laptops, you'd think high tech aircraft could too. Generally I'm not a big fan of software and technology, and prefer simple simplicity, but this is probably a situation where a white board may not cut it. Or garbled verbal communication for that matter.