Noise and Silence, Focus and Space

I was in Hamburg the past few days for a meeting to discuss the program for Climbers’ Forum in Augsburg next year.

I like Hamburg: I love the harbour, a buzzing hive of activity, I love the vibrant alternative culture that you can still find in many parts of town, despite massive gentrification efforts, I enjoy discovering obscure nooks and crannies and much more. I will be back…

This time one of the things I did was to visit the Airbus plant in Finkenwerder – and what a stunning place that is! 13’000 Airbus employees on site, much of it reclaimed land where the southern arm of the Elbe used to flow and filled in docks. I went to see the A319/ 320 assembly line… which was rather spectacular. Seeing the plane I flew to Hamburg in being riveted together out of panels of aluminium which are 1.5mm thick at the thinnest and 5mm at the thickest point was quite special, to say the least. As you move down the assembly lines you see pieces of the hull being joined up, wings being added on and tail fins joined to the aircraft. Very, very complex stuff…

But what was very striking is how the whole process was very calm, focused and quiet. The scene was not dominated by shouting and loud machinery you might expect of heavy industry. OK, when they are riveting things can get a little noisy, but otherwise people seem to be going about their business at a measured, calm pace.

This painted quite a stark contrast to the place I was staying in, which had a large construction site across the road, with a block of flats being erected. I was watching the builders working in a very tight space, with everybody jockeying for space in an effort to get their bit done. Very hectic, very noisy, lots of shouting. The overall effect gave the impression of a stressful work environment. I also found out on Saturday morning at six thirty, to my great pleasure (not), that they also work on Saturday. Strange, how in such a situation it always seems to be the digger you have to fire up first of all, regardless of whether you have any digging to do or not… I suppose it is a form of sharing the pain of working on Saturdays.

Then, one evening we went out to an Indian restaurant.

The place is in deepest St. Pauli and always seems to be heaving. An obvious reasons for this is that the food is very, very good. But that is not the point I was going to make here. You get there and encounter a small space jam-packed with people. Somehow out of the chaos an employee of the restaurant emerges, finds a space for you, jams you in and within a couple of minutes they have sorted out what you want and get it to you. Actually, despite the superficial appearance of chaos, the whole procedure is remarkably streamlined and efficient. The kitchen is open and very cramped, lots of staff assembling the various dishes in a space of a mere couple of square meters. A recipe for bad temper, you might think? But this was not so. They were all just going about their business, sharing a joke here and there, no shouting, no grumpiness, just people doing their job in a very rolling, just-in-time-delivery-fashion.

I was struck by these three very different environments: the red thread running through them though is that a work site may be chaotic and loud, so long as you manage to create a framework that people can work in an efficient, relaxed and manageable fashion, they can and will do so happily. Take the same situation and put people under pressure, working long hours with little appreciation at the end of it, the picture changes: people get irritable and stressed.

Also, noise equals stress.

As soon as people start shouting, even if not in anger, a site feels more stressful and less under control. Airbus struck me as being an environment with a deeply ingrained safety culture, right down to how people moved and acted. No shouting, no running, take you time and get it right. On the flight home last night I was quite glad of that insight. And definitely feel there is something to take away from that culture

The link to tree work?

As we are working at height, per definition we are placing operators – and/ or ourselves – in high(er) risk environments, therefore it is important to consider how to make these more pleasant, less stressful and at the same time more productive and safer. Good communication is one of the keys, without a doubt. Use radios as soon as there is any doubt whether communication between the persons aloft and the ground personnel is guaranteed. The effect is profound: no more shouting, less stress, more clarity and focus and an over-all sense of professionalism.