Get That Work Landed!  Lessons from Air Traffic Control

Prefer to watch rather than read? Click here to watch the video – 4 mins, with captions.

Air Traffic Control has it’s act together.  Because if it doesn’t, things go wrong.  Really wrong.

Here’s four lessons we can pick up that are easy to apply in your organisation to lift your performance in getting strategy delivered.


Communication is a big deal – Air Traffic Control (ATC) is responsible for getting the planes to go where they need to so they avoid other planes.  And land.  There are clear protocols for how this work, the most noticeable being the read-back. 

Note this exchange:

ATC: Virgin 45 whiskey heavy, heading 310, maintain 4000

VIR45W: Heading 310, maintain 4000, Virgin 45 whiskey

See how the Virgin captain repeated back the key details – ATC controllers are trained to listen and to check.

You don’t need to go to this extreme in your organisation – you might not have lives on the line – but bringing in a small version of a read-back or a confirmation can make a big difference not only to messages getting through…but to team cohesion.


Related to the above are hand-offs – in ATC, there are three or four levels that planes go through in  a journey – from the controller who gets the aircraft to the runway, to those that get them up into the air, then those that get them into the cross-country routes, then those that get them across the country.

And then back down again.

It’s naturally important that aircraft are handed from one controller to the next, so they are given a clearly communicated message such as:

ATC: Alaska 326, contact Tower 128.8

And of course, the read-back to confirm it:

Alaska 326: 28.8, see ya.

Here’s a key point – hand-offs are not just thrown over the fence, like this champion:

…thus making it the next controller’s problem. Instead hand-offs are given warning and capacity is checked before it occurs.  And this goes all the way back down the chain to the airport before planes take off to avoid things getting lost. 

When they are projects in your organisation – getting lost might be OK.  Not for aircraft with many souls on board. 


Airports make money when planes land.  Airlines make money when planes land.  Passengers pay for planes getting landed.  On time.  This is the whole point.

The thing is – the number of planes landed depends entirely on the capacity of the runway, because landing two planes at once is a bad idea.

And what’s the best way to get as many up and down safely while maintaining the separation required to avoid running into each other?

Sequencing them.

The key is this – the runway is a shared resource.  And the pace of throughput of the shared resource is the pace of the system. 

How does it work in your organisation?  How are your shared resources going? I already know the answer.

You might talk priorities, but this doesn’t matter if we still end up with more than one aircraft being ‘priority’.  Your people need to know which piece of work to land next.  Otherwise it looks like a Black Friday sale.

Instead you need to sequence your initiatives to allow the throughput of the shared resources to be maximised.

Not doing this does not cause the same level of explosive disaster as it can in the airline trade.  Instead, it’s a slow decline in mental, physical and emotional health until your people crack.  Or as one client puts it ‘the talented people just get jack of it and leave’.

You actually can get all the planes you have to get landed this year to land.  You just can’t land them all at once.

Visualising the work

Our final lesson for now is visualising.  We’re all familiar with the ATC radar, but did you know they used to use wooden blocks, one per flight, with flight details written on them in conjunction with the radar?  Fed from the top, they would be put in the order the controller intended to land them, and once the aircraft was handed off to ground control, the block would be put in the bin.

While it’s been replaced by digital means, the principle remains – a clear way to visualise the work responsible for, which not only keeps things together…it also allows for rapid changes to be made in emergency situations without losing track of other flights. Agility!

Ask yourself the visual tools in your organisation.  Your IT crew might be using Kanban boards, which are often ideal…but what do your Executive use?  Most likely a version of a monthly report with colours on it, but very little information on the sequence overall, what’s landing next, and where are the  organisational logjams requiring executive attention.

This is like getting the status of each individual plane in the air, as if it’s on the ground.  And about as useful.

Instead,  visualisation of movement, sequencing, flow – this is what allows a complex show to actually be run, and it takes very little effort…just a little will.

Bringing it Home

If you’ve got a strategy you think will position you in your environment for success – then you’re going to need to actually do the work to make those moves happen.  Borrowing some, or all of the lessons from ATC in communications, hand-offs, sequencing and visualising work has the overall effect of making your organisation a more cohesive whole that gets things done. It creates progress.

A remember, a sense of progress is the number one motivator.  It’s what we all want. 

Land more planes.

Now, over to you.

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