Business Operations and the Swiss Cheese Model: Lessons Learnt From Aviation

I often look at my hobbies to draw parallels, find insights, and turn these into quick bites applicable to my everyday work. Once more, my inspiration comes from aviation: while a few weeks ago I looked at how the oxygen mask principle applies to leadership, this time I’m turning to Swiss cheese for operational wisdom.

Safety in aviation is paramount, as precision and reliability often mean life or death for crew and passengers alike. To safeguard its operations, aviation relies heavily on an approach known as The Swiss Cheese Model of accident causation that applies both during design and maintenance processes and may offer valuable lessons applicable to business operations as a whole. Let’s see how easily this concept translates.

The Swiss Cheese Model in Aviation

Aviation uses the Swiss Cheese Model to prevent accidents and mishaps, similar to multiple layers of Swiss cheese slices with holes (representing flaws or vulnerabilities), each not lining up perfectly. If one layer fails (where holes align), subsequent layers prevent catastrophic events from taking place. Here’s how it works:

Resiliency is at the center of aircraft design, where critical systems feature redundant backup systems to maintain flight safety if the primary one should fail. For instance, if the main altimeter malfunctions, there’s a secondary one that functions on a separate system to maintain flight safety. If a power failure occurs, most commercial aircrafts have an Auxiliary Power Unit (APU) which is a small gas turbine usually mounted in the tail cone that provides enough electricity to operate essential systems such as starting engines.

Consistent checks to detect and fix potential issues are an integral component of maintaining any vehicle, helping identify issues before they become serious and critical. Even if one mechanic misses something important during maintenance checks, additional measures provide further safeguards and provide peace of mind.

The Swiss Cheese Model In Business Operations

Now, let’s apply the Swiss Cheese Model to business operations.

Strategic Thinking and Planning
Think of your business strategy as the initial layer of defense: it sets a course and recognizes potential threats, yet might contain holes and leave vulnerabilities unprotected. For example, supplier and vendor relationships are often bottlenecks to mid- and long-term operations, something we can avoid by planning in advance and avoiding over-reliance on a single supplier for mission-critical services.

The daily operations of your business represent successive layers, meaning we’d ideally have multiple backup procedures or methods for executing essential tasks. Process redundancy, automation, cross-training within a team or department are but some of the means by which we can safeguard business operations from catastrophic failure (that is, when a hole in our Swiss cheese opens).

Feedback and Control
Much like aircraft maintenance ensures a plane’s safe flight, feedback and control loops in business can ensure issues don’t arise due to poor results or errors within operations themselves. Routine checks can detect issues before they impact customers or clients directly.

Examples of Swiss Cheese Principle in Business

Ad Tech
Ad tech companies’ strategies often incorporate redundancy in data storage and server capacity; should one server experience technical difficulties (a hole in its first slice), others can take over to ensure seamless ad delivery (thus maintaining successive layers).

Marketing campaigns use various channels such as social media, email marketing and content production in an attempt to meet campaign goals. If one channel underperforms, others can make up the difference to reach campaign objectives successfully.

Sales teams can employ the Swiss Cheese Model by diversifying their client portfolio in order to protect themselves should one client experience budget cuts (and therefore revenue drops from that slice); other clients can make up that difference and meet sales targets.

Just as multiple layers of defense prevent accidents in flight, resilient organizations can build resilient operations that won’t collapse when holes form; the Swiss Cheese Model helps us attain this objective.