Learning to Do Things the Israel Air Force Way

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Shmayim founder Ofir Paldi standing beneath models of two aircraft and a helicopter.
Top gun: Ofir Paldi left the IDF at 27 to form Shamayim.Credit: Eyal Toueg

Israel Air Force pilots are considered some of the best in the world, thanks to the special training they receive. But there’s no reason why learning the IAF way can’t be used in business, medicine and nearly everywhere else in the civilian sector.

Ofir Paldi took the training program in order to become a combat helicopter pilot. But at 27, he left the IAF to found Shamayim, which is bringing the IAF way to hospitals and other organizations.

Pilots are viewed as being at the summit of all the Israel Defense Forces elites.

Yes, but a study carried out by the IAF found that the influence on Israeli society of those who served in air crews was far lower than that of graduates of Sayeret Matkal [a special-ops unit], 8200 [the IDF’s cyber-intelligence unit] and other elite units.

There are a lot of stigmas regarding pilots.

Yes, I know, like arrogance, elitism – but they have added values. The first is the ability to fly, and the second is familiarity with the learning models and work culture we grew up in. We felt that if we could bring the IAF’s people and model into civilian life, we could create a great deal of influence and value for Israeli society.

What does that mean in practice?

There is professional literature that says you need 10,000 hours of training in order to be a professional in your field. They say one of the reasons for The Beatles’ excellence was the fact that they spent thousands of hours playing in bars and small venues before they reached the top. The IAF takes 18-year-olds and trains them to be outstanding pilots with only 250 training hours – far fewer than most other air forces in the world.

Shamayim has filmed teachers in front of their class, allowing them to learn where they are making mistakes.Credit: Dreamstime

And how does this miracle occur?

The primary reason lies in the model for the training process in the pilots’ course. In almost every field for which you receive training – medicine, law, accounting – they teach the profession. The air force says, “We’ll teach you to fly, but for us that’s secondary. The first thing is a model of self-learning and personal responsibility.” That’s what enables them to realize potential in a relatively short time.

Even so, taking personal responsibility is a pretty rare thing in Israel.

True. That stems from a basic problem, and that’s the way Israeli society and human nature relate to a mistake. It’s difficult for us to deal with mistakes, and the most beautiful thing the IAF has succeeded in developing during the nearly 70 years of its existence is the ability to change the perception of the word “mistake” – taking it from investigative committees, finger-pointing and punishments to something that’s part of the working and learning process.

How does it work?

Every flight is debriefed. Imagine an IAF squadron – the place with the highest possible level of ego – where people get up and talk about their mistakes. Everyone goes into the same room and a representative of each crew gets up and talks about the main lessons the crew learned. The young pilot doesn’t hesitate to talk about the mistakes he made, and the squadron commander talks about his failure and what can be learned from it. A second later, all heads swivel around toward the one who didn’t speak about his failure – because from the very first moment, you’re educated to believe that you’re a human being, so by definition you make mistakes.

That reminds me of support groups, where someone gets up, talks about their childhood and everyone says “We love you...”

Here it’s different, and what’s special is that the participants include both senior people and young officers, managers and workers. There’s a reversal of roles.

Surgeons and staff during an operation. Concerned by its intransigent, secretive image, Shamayim left the medical profession until last.Credit: AP

Doesn’t this make it easier for people to make mistakes and not try as hard? Doesn’t it damage excellence?

No, just the opposite. Admitting a mistake is not enough. A significant part of the learning process lies in the question of what you do about it and how to avoid errors the next time.

And at the end you hold a debriefing.

During the flight, too, about 15% to 20% of the time is devoted to debriefing and learning in real time. After the flight, cadets write their own debriefing report and then watch a video and write it again. It’s only after they’ve debriefed themselves that they sit with the crew and flight instructor to get feedback. This is personal responsibility, and this is what creates the debriefing culture.

So how do you apply this to the civilian world?

We started in the sports world, mainly youth organizations, and from there we went to education. We establish learning and debriefing centers in schools, including teachers who film themselves and then are debriefed. From education we moved into the public sector, internship programs, and in the past year we also reached the business sector and the medical realm.

How do teachers react to your presence?

Amazingly well. That’s one of the most positive surprises, and it is repeated in every school. They told us teachers are isolated creatures who stand alone in front of a class, so why should we film them? Initially, there was a great deal of concern. Today, we’ve already reached a situation where teachers ask other teachers to film them so they can learn from it afterward.

What are you looking for in these films?

We’re not looking for anything, that’s exactly the point. The teachers are used to an inspector coming along once a year and giving feedback. We say the process has to be such that it will cause them to teach themselves, without having “the answer” drop down on them. I have a slide in a presentation that shows the difference between a cadet in the IAF training course and a U.S. cadet. In the United States, you see the senior instructor standing in front of the cadets and lecturing, while in Israel you see a cadet sitting alone with a notebook and engaging in self-criticism. That’s the difference.

How does it work?

The process consists of three parts: The first part is collecting the material – video or audio recordings, or just sitting down with the work plans; the second part is the weekly personal learning center; the third part is the forum. Almost every enterprise has such a forum that meets once every week or week-and-a-half, and we take this forum and plant our own language and methods within it. Those who have done the personal learning come and present [to the forum] in a more open manner. This way, a learning process is created.

It sounds a bit utopian. How can you encourage self-debriefing without people thinking it’s a double-edged sword?

A flight-training course is the most competitive place there is, because you’re always being evaluated and you can be kicked out at any moment – and yet they still manage to instill in us this change of perception. The question is, how can you assimilate the same thinking in business enterprises?

How does this square with the image of the self-protective medical world and the concerns of doctors and medical institutions regarding debriefings?

That really harms our ability to create significant learning procedures in the health-care system, and that’s why we put this field aside for a long time [But] we see a close connection between the aviation and medical worlds. Both worlds are characterized by large amounts of data, working with checklists and tremendous responsibility for the point man. Even the technical work is similar.

And in both worlds, the price of a mistake is very high.

Exactly. The IAF was losing 25 planes a year until the 1980s, when they decided this could not go on. The main change [implemented] was putting a video camera in the plane. Today, not a single plane takes off without a video camera inside it. It changed things tremendously. Now the IAF loses between zero and two planes a year. Up until then, pilots would say whatever they wanted about what went on during the flight.

Are you hinting that the health-care system is also losing a lot of patients unnecessarily?

Yes. Our feeling is that the medical world is at the same place where the IAF was in the ’80s. In the United States, medical errors are listed as the third leading cause of death. In Israel, [in 2013] the state comptroller found that 5,000 [hospital] deaths a year are caused by infections – [three-quarters] of which could have been prevented.

How does this work in analyzing an operation at a hospital?

There’s no such thing. Now, for instance, we’re building files on procedures for joint replacement surgery: preparations page, characteristic errors, performance checklist, videos for demonstration purposes. We produce a file that every doctor or resident goes over before performing surgery, creating standardization and a clear definition of how things are supposed to be. This also makes it easier to debrief afterward.

If there’s no orderly training, no preparation beforehand and no debriefing afterward, we’ve basically been abandoned...

No, but there’s a work culture that has prevailed for many years and there are problems, like the fear that debriefing will lead to lawsuits – and that makes it difficult to learn.

For example, we worked with the head of an orthopedics department who discovered in the middle of an operation that he was holding the wrong screw. He was open enough to talk about this during a debriefing with the entire department. They took it to the operational level of how you should act if such a situation recurs, built a presurgical checklist and drew conclusions about the provision of the screws. So this one comment touched upon things at the organizational level.

You must have had some failures too?

Yes. Sometimes we don’t manage to crack open the group, or they put us in a group that’s resistant to the process. There’s also the matter of adjusting expectations. But our biggest challenge is how to keep it going over time, because it sounds really sexy and interesting at the beginning and then wears thin. Initially, the reaction is “Wow!” and then slowly it becomes, “Leave us alone, we’re sick of this.”

Where will Shamayim be five years from now?

My aspiration is to develop separate organizational units in sports, education, medicine – although I feel that medicine will be the central focus. I also see us working internationally. I hope we’ll be the replacement workplace for air crew members who are discharged from the IAF, and that we’ll be able to provide them with similar conditions, with significant value. Today, Shamayim has 10 people, most of them pilots, and it’s headed on a voluntary basis by former IAF commander Eliezer Shkedy. He believes in our goals and the culture we’re trying to instill. We’ve worked with more than 50 organizations in the past three years.

Did you also prepare for this interview, after which you’ll do a debriefing?

I made preparations and there will be a debriefing. Obviously.

And what will you write there?

That next time I need to prepare myself better and know how to answer when I’m asked about pilots’ stigmas.

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