Today’s episode features Jeff Orr where we’ll talk about lessons he learned in the Air Force as a fighter pilot and pilot trainer. A major thrust of our conversation is on the usefulness of checklists and why they are so important not only in flying but everyday living as well.
Too often we fly by the seat of our pants and as a result, we miss things along the way. This is just as true in business as it is in flying a plane over the speed of sound or in the operating room. Join us as we explore why checklists and other leadership lessons from the airforce are important for you and your business.
Some of the lessons you’ll learn today are:
- What top athletes and fighter pilots have in common. The answer might surprise you.
- Learn about the myth of multi-tasking.
- The difference between urgent and important and important, but not urgent.
- Learn what your core values are and why knowing this is crucial to you creating a sustainable business.
- Know that people who join your company need to adopt your values if they’re going to be successful. Learn how you can make sure this happens.
Narrator: Welcome to The Sustainable Business Radio Show podcast where you’ll learn not only how to create a sustainable business but you’ll also learn the secrets of creating extraordinary value within your business and your life. In The Sustainable Business, we focus on what it’s going to take for you to take your successful business and make it economically and personally successful.
Your host, Josh Patrick, is going to help us through finding great thought leaders as well as providing insights he’s learned through his 40 years of owning, running, planning and thinking about what it takes to make a successful business sustainable.
Josh: Hey, this is Josh Patrick. You’re at The Sustainable Business.
Today, our guest is Jeff Orr. Jeff is a fighter pilot and a flight instructor in the National Guard. He went to the Air Force Academy. He spent 10 years in the regular Air Force and now is living at Tucson, Arizona where he teaches people how to fly F-16s which we happen to have in Burlington, Vermont. I actually remember that for a change.
Today, we’re going to talk about lessons that Jeff has learned and stories from his upcoming book about being an Air Force pilot and the good stuff that the Air Force teaches. I can tell you for a fact that I think the military does an incredible job at teaching people what they’re doing and how to be great managers. I’ve seen it with my son who is a medic in the 160th which is a special operations unit. I’m sure Jeff will tell what he’s doing. Before we start, we want to make sure we thank Jeff for his service to our country. Let’s welcome him in.
Hey, Jeff. How are you today?
Jeff: Hi, Josh. Doing great. Good to be here.
Josh: Thanks so much for joining me today. I really appreciate it.
Jeff: Thank you.
Josh: Tell me, you’re writing this book, what brought you to write it? What do you think that you have to teach folks?
Jeff: Two years ago, I read a book called The Sports Gene from an author named David Epstein. A great book, by the way. He had made a comment about fighter pilots in the book. I’m reading it and I go, “You know, I don’t know that that applies, really. I’ve never seen this in my career.” And so, I e-mailed him and I asked him about it. That precipitated a penpal relationship, if you will, or e-mail. And then eventually, I met him and we swapped a lot of ideas.
Through him, I was invited to be on a panel in New York for a pro sport conference from a company called Leaders. While I was there, we talked about developing the lead performance. That was the topic of the panel. Afterwards, I had a lot of these pro sports people come up to me and ask me questions about how we train pilots, I guess, with the intent being that they have lead performers that they need to train in their sports and sort of analogous to what I do. Like you were saying, the military is really good at training people to do things. And so, there was a demand for the knowledge that I had for training.
One of those guys said, “You know, you should write a book.” And I said, “You know what, I’ll write a book.” And so, for the last year and a half I’ve been writing a book.
Josh: It’s quite an experience. Was this the first time you did any major writing?
Jeff: You know, I had an article published in a journal when I was in the active duty Air Force years ago. I enjoy writing but I’d never taken on a project the size of this one.
Josh: It’s a pretty big undertaking, that’s’ for sure.
I’ve got your table of contents staring me in the face. There’s something which I really want to talk with you about which is your chapter three, the myth of multitasking.
Josh: Let’s talk about that for a second because I have a sense you and I are going to be in complete agreement about this.
Jeff: Wonderful. I think people, in general,– and this was borne out when I was in New York on the panel, think about what a fighter pilot does in particular as being a lot of multitasking. You’re flying a fast jet at fast speeds, doing a lot of things at one time. Yes, of course, it’s multitasking.
But in reality, the brain can’t multitask. You can’t do two things at once. Why can a fighter pilot do what a fighter pilot does in the air? I kind of stepped back and looked at it, how do we do what we do without being able to do two things at one time?
The answer that I came up with is (1) while we’re executing the mission in the airplane is a thing called the cross check. How do we cross check so that we can do lots of different things seemingly at the same time? And then backing up from that, how do we train our people? The answer is we spend a lot of time compartmentalizing what we’re doing so that you get really good at the thing that you’re doing right now. And then when that’s to some sort of level of completion, that you’re happy with, you move on to the next thing.
I think a lot of people don’t run their businesses that way in particular. They’re basically putting out fires all day, answering e-mails when they come in, and just reacting to things as they happen versus having some sort of a thought-out plan to handle things on a compartmentalized basis.
Josh: What I’m hearing you say, and this kind of fits in with Stephen Covey’s activities, is that when you’re trying to multitask, you’re always working on urgent and important activities at once, or urgent and not important even, but you’re trying to do too many things at once. As a result, you don’t really do any of them very well. By focusing on one thing at a time, you’re more likely to get a better result than trying to do three things at once. Does that make sense?
Jeff: That’s exactly right. There’s so much science out there to back that up that it’s fish in a barrel if you’re looking to prove a point. It’s pretty well documented which surprises me when people don’t know that.
Josh: Well, modern society and culture teaches us that multitasking is good and you’re not good unless you can do it. The truth is I’ve never been able to multitask. I don’t know anybody who does.
I know that when I’m talking to my wife and I start reading e-mails at the same time, she gets incredibly annoyed at me. She always knows I’m doing it. So does everybody else, when you do it. I guess, we can stop reading e-mails and talking to our spouses at the same time.
Jeff: Here, here.
Josh: Or at least that’s a good idea.
Jeff: Well, that’s an example I have in the book actually is think about talking to somebody on the phone while you know they’re looking at e-mail on their computer and how that conversation is choppy and nobody’s listening to each other. And like you said, it takes a lot longer to do two things at once than it takes to do the two things in sequence with each other.
I mean, the truth about multitasking is what we’re really doing is parallel tasking. Those of us who are younger – not me, but those who are younger, can do it faster because their minds are more elastic, I think, but you’re still not multitasking.
Jeff: The problem is that your task switching is the scientific name for it.
Jeff: The example that I put in the book, is I’m a cyclist, and so I spend a lot of time on the roads in Tucson. Back in, let’s say, 2004 to 2005, any time I stop at a stoplight on the bicycle, I look into the car that’s parked next to me on the road because I’m going to lose if the car runs into me or I run into the car, I’m going to lose so it benefits me to make sure that the person in the car knows that I’m there. Back in 2004 and 2005, I could almost always make eye contact with the person in the car and now they know I’m there and everything is good.
Fast forward to 2017, there could be 12 cars parked at a stoplight and every single person is looking down at their phone and never make eye contact with me, because people think you’re fine to do that at a stoplight. The problem is that when you’re multitasking, when you switch from one task to the other, there’s inefficiency because you have to rebuild your picture of what’s happening in your environment. When you put your entire attention down into your device and then you look up again, even if you car is not moving, you still have to take in the environment and figure out what you’re going to do next and you lose efficiency doing that.
Josh: Yeah, that makes perfectly good sense to me.
The lesson for folks who are listening is, if you’re a business owner, stop multitasking and don’t allow your people to try to multitask. They’re going to go a lot faster, be much more efficient and have higher quality work if they’re doing one thing with high focus at a time.
Let’s move on to your foundation where you talk about core values. What do you mean by that, Jeff?
Jeff: The core values of the Air Force are integrity first, service before self, and excellence in all we do. What I talk about in the book is, a lot of times, I see, it’s written everywhere. It’s on Air Force documents. We have it on the wall in the building, that kind of thing, to the point that I look at it and I go, “Well, yes, of course.” But then, when I step back and I looked at that, I went, “You know, I think the reason that I look at those core values and it doesn’t move me to tears or anything is because that’s what I believed before I came to the Air Force.
And so, on the one hand, knowing what you’re about is a focus for the people who are in the organization who maybe don’t understand what you’re about. But most importantly I think the core values of the Air Force, in particular, bring people in who are attracted to those core values. If you’re starting an organization on your own, I think one of the first things that you need to do is define what are your core values because it’s going to keep the organization on the same page but it’s also going to bring in people who already buy into your culture.
Josh: Again, I 100% agree with that.
Here’s a thing that I’ve learned over the years is that, values are things that people agree with and they adopt before they come to work for your company.
You know, you gave a great example with the Air Force who have core values. Those were your core values also so it was easy for you to buy into what the Air Force is selling. It’s easy for somebody who buys into any company that has articulated clear values about what makes them unique. If your company doesn’t have values, people are making up what your company’s values are, so you might as well figure out what your values are and make sure people adopt your values and you don’t try to adopt their values. Does that make sense?
Jeff: Oh, absolutely.
A big part of the book is exactly what you said because if you don’t put it out there in a way that’s permanent, mostly writing things down, then information will find a way to fill the vacuum that you leave for it. If you don’t have a method to have the horses to all run the same direction then the horse are going to run in whatever direction is easiest to go.
Josh: When you talk about tracking what you care about, I sort of think I know what that means, but what does that mean?
Jeff: That means that if you don’t know what you’re doing, and by not knowing what you’re doing I mean, quantify what you’re doing, then you have no way to improve on what you’re doing.
When I sat down to start writing the book, the most salient aspects of flying of a fighter jet are the flying the fighter jet part, and top gun, and I was inverted, the gutsiest move I ever saw, man, and all that kind of stuff. When I started really digging into what makes us so good at what we do, it really boils down to all of this foundational writing things down, and checklists, and tracking what we do. Because what happens is, every time I fly, I log that sortie. I log the type of departure that I did. And I if shot the gun or if I dropped a bomb or if I flew an instrument approaching the weather – all those kinds of things, and it all goes into the system.
Six months down the road, I might think, “Oh boy, I’d been doing instrument approaches every week” but in reality I haven’t done one in the last six months because time gets away from you. If you haven’t tracked that you’re doing that then you could go forever and not do one of these things. For a fighter pilot, in particular, we have a concept called currency. You don’t want to run out of currency of those important things because you get rusty. You don’t want to get rusty at something that’s going to potentially save your life when you’re flying to some strange field in bad weather. That just lets us know, “Hey, you haven’t done of these things in a while and you need to do one.”
Josh: You just mentioned another thing that’s dear to my heart which are checklists. We all know that pilots have checklists. How many things are on your checklist? That’s the first thing I want to know.
Jeff: It depends on the checklist because we have a checklist for essentially everything.
There’s a great book called The Checklist Manifesto, written by Atul Gawande.
Josh: I love the book. I love the book.
Jeff: Fantastic book. I never would’ve thought that someone could write a book that interesting about a topic like checklists but Dr. Gawande knocked it out of the park.
Jeff: Checklists, in the military, started prior to World War II when, up until that point, airplanes had been simple enough and they were all similar enough that you could pretty much climb in any of them and it was basically the same thing, just a motor and a propeller, wings and a stick. But with the advent of the B-17, prior to World War II, that was the point where the system had become so complicated that no one person could keep it all in their head at one time and keep it straight. After crashing one, they realized that what they had to do was they had to actually spell out each step, in sequence, that the pilot had to do to be safe in the airplane because you just couldn’t remember all of it.
And so, to answer your question, that was kind of a long way around it. I know there were probably a hundred odd steps in the before takeoff checklist. And then there’s a pre-taxi checklist. That’s probably another 10 steps. And a pre-takeoff checklist. That’s probably another 15. There’s a climb check for after we takeoff. That’s probably another 10 or so. There are several different checklists that we run throughout the course of a sortie but it’s hundreds of steps.
Josh: It seems to me that the checklists all get chunked down to smaller pieces, meaning that well, if you have 100 things on your checklist, do you actually go through and check off each of the hundred before you take–
Jeff: It depends on what stage you’re in.
I teach brand new F-16 pilots. Their very first ride in the F-16 is with me in the back seat watching what they’re doing. The way I train them is, you will have the checklist open and attached to your leg. You will go through each step, in sequence, and say it out loud so that I know that you’ve done it, if it’s not something that I can verify from the back seat. You’ll do it in order and you’ll do it perfectly because I need accuracy. I can’t have the guy sacrifice accuracy for speed in the initial stages because what he’s doing is he’s essentially wiring his brain.
Once you’ve gone through that checklist 20 times, then it becomes automatic. At that point, it swaps over from being a check-and-do to a do-and-verify. That’s the stage that I’m in, after having flown F-16s for 23 years, is I get in the airplane and my hands just automatically flip the switches that need to be flipped. And then afterwards, I grab that checklist and I look through each step and I just make sure that I did everything because the one thing that will bite you in the back side, as a pilot, is rushing through a checklist and forgetting a step because we’re all going to forget things. It doesn’t matter how automatic that behavior has become. There will be some tiny thing that you forget at some point and you just hope that that tiny thing isn’t the one that causes something bad to happen.
Josh: What I’m hearing you say is, a checklist allows you to have a level of consistency that’s just not possible without using one.
Jeff: Well, there are two ways to look at that. You’re exactly right. The one way is, like the B-17 example, when you have a system–
Dr. Gawande, in his book, talks about doctors in an operating room where you have several people. You have a complicated thing to do. It’s really, really easy to forget, one hour prior to cutting someone open, putting the antibiotic in the drip. But if you forget to do that, it can be a colossal problem. The system is complicated enough and over a long enough time horizon that it’s easy to forge a little thing like that.
The checklist, what that does is, it covers the individual fallibility as the first step makes it so that the system is capable of being run by one brain. But then the other thing is, and this is to your point, it makes the performance consistent across the entire hospital so everyone is doing the same thing. We know that when you go to the hospital that you might get Dr. X or Dr. Y. but you know that he/she is going to do the exact same thing because they have the same checklist.
Josh: That makes sense. When I get on a plane, I don’t want someone to make it up. I want them to do the same exact thing that’s going to keep the thing up in the air.
Jeff: Exactly. And if you don’t have a checklist, then you’re basically “every time is the first”.
Jeff: Every time you go into that operating room, you’re doing it from scratch. If you’ve got a different nurse, a different anesthetist with you, you’re doing it for the first time. If you’re climbing into an airplane with a different crew and nobody’s on the same page, you’re starting from scratch every time.
Josh: It seems to me that a checklist allows those who run companies to have a consistent experience for their customers and allows their employees to have or know what the definition of excellence is so they know if they’re doing it or not.
Jeff: Absolutely. Because, like I just said, you get a consistent performance across the entire organization. And it’s your vision of what you want to have done. You’re not leaving the information vacuum for everybody to fill up as they see fit.
Josh: Jeff, we have time for one more topic. The one that I’m going to choose is training backward from the target. What does that actually mean?
Jeff: For one, you have to have a target. You have to know what it is that you want to do.
On a mission execution basis, for us, it’s literally hitting a target with a weapon. You have your target. And then you know what weapon you want to use for what reasons you want to use it. And then you start backwards from there to figure out where you need the airplane to be in space at any given time prior to that.
Even so far as to say, it will take two hours to fly to that target. Therefore, we need to take off at this time to have enough time. We need to step to the airplanes 45 minutes prior to that takeoff time. We need to brief the mission two hours prior which means that I need to be at work at such and such time which means I need to be in bed the night before. Working backwards from the target drives your execution of the mission all the way up to that.
From an organizational perspective, it’s figuring out where you want the organization to be, let’s say, six months from now. If I do everything right, what does success look like in six months or a year? Whatever your time horizon is. And then, what do I need to accomplish? And at what intervals do I need to accomplish those things in order to meet that goal? Versus just starting out and whatever happens, happens.
Josh: That sounds like one of Stephen Covey’s seven habits which is start with the end in mind. I think that made sense when I first read it. And I think it makes sense when you’ve just explained it. If you tend to work backward, you’re likely to have some more success.
Hey, Jeff, we’re basically out of time for this podcast. You have lots of great lessons. I’m sure this is going to be an unbelievable book.
The military has a lot to teach us. You see, this whole thing about the military being too bureaucratic and it doesn’t get things done, in my experience, it’s just a myth. I never was in the military but I used to service the military when I was in the vending business. Watching my son is just a completely different thing. I actually think the military provides training that’s just plainly unbelievable.
I appreciate you sharing those lessons that you’ve learned with us. How would folks find you if they wanted to?
Jeff: I’m on Twitter, @JefforAZ. My website is jefforr.com.
Josh: I assume you have an e-mail link or contact out there.
Jeff: I do have a contact page on my website.
Josh: I’m also going to bet that if somebody wanted to have a conversation with you, you would probably be willing to do so?
Jeff: You bet.
Hey, Jeff, thanks so much for your time today. I really appreciate it.
I also have an offer for you. I have a free one-hour audio CD. It’s my free audio CD course. It’s called Success to Sustainability: The Five Things You Need to Do to Make Your Business Personally and Economically Sustainable. It’s really easy to get it. All you have to do is take out your smartphone. As Jeff just told you, don’t do this while you’re driving because the bikers don’t like it. I’m a biker also, by the way. Take out your smartphone and text the word SUSTAINABLE to 44222. That’s the word SUSTAINABLE to 44222.
This is Josh Patrick. You’ve been at The Sustainable Business. Thanks a lot for spending some time with us today. I hope to see you back here really soon.
Narrator: You’ve been listening to The Sustainable Business podcast where we ask the question, “What would it take for your business to still be around 100 years from now?” If you like what you’ve heard and want more information, please contact Josh Patrick at 802‑846‑1264 ext 2, or visit us on our website at www.askjoshpatrick.com, or you can send Josh an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks for listening. We hope to see you at The Sustainable Business in the near future.