Using Accurate Thinking and a Backup Plan

by Victor Cheng

There is more news today about the U.S. FAA (Federal Aviation Administration).

Today the FAA suspended yet another air traffic controller. This time for watching a movie instead of paying attention to air traffic.  This controller got fired as he/she should.

Clearly these are embarrassing times for the FAA.

This latest incident aside, the on-going controversy is about air traffic controllers falling asleep.

The head of the FAA is going around the country, visiting his staff, telling them that unprofessional behavior such as falling asleep is unacceptable.

Rather than insisting that controllers do not sleep on the job, it might be useful to understand why controllers are falling asleep in the first place.

Are they doing it intentionally (in which case they should be fired) or are they doing it unintentionally?

It is useful to isolate the “root cause” of the problem — because you solve each problem differently.

If controllers are deliberately breaking the rules, there is a personnel selection, performance monitoring or culture problem.

If falling asleep is unintentional, it is worth questioning why this is happening.  Creating stiffer penalties will not help when the behavior is not a deliberate one. (Though it does look good in the news.)

It reminds me of the old saying that “the flogging shall continue until morale improves.”

If the falling asleep behavior is not intentional, then it is useful to focus on this more specific definition of the problem.  To solve this issue, there are multiple solutions.

1) Compare air traffic controllers to other professions involving overnight shifts to see what other professions do.

When was the last time you heard of an airplane pilot falling asleep unintentionally on a flight?  What about 911 operators? Firemen? Combat soldiers?

Surely this problem has already been solved by someone else. Learn from the experience (and mistakes) of other industries, or risk re-inventing the mistake in yours.

This is not just true for the FAA, but for your own business and industry as well.

It’s a big world out there. The problems you face in your business are hardly unique to you. Someone, somewhere in a world with 6 billion people has faced and solved this problem before.

One of my secrets to providing clients with breakthrough strategies is to “borrow” what is boring standard practice in one industry, and to transplant it to another.

This is my #1 source of innovative breakthrough ideas for my clients.

2) If unintentionally falling asleep is the problem, then why not have a backup system or process in place? This is not exactly rocket science.

The idea of a backup system is not some new invention.

For example, I back up my hard drive in multiple locations.

I have one network attached storage array that is on site. The backup array contains four hard drives in it. If any one drive fails, the other three still have all the data.

That hard drive array sits on a battery backup power supply. If the power fails, the battery kicks in. If the battery runs out, it tells the storage array to shut down.

If the power is down for an extended time, I have a 7000-watt power generator on site and enough fuel for 36 hours.

Data from the hard drive is backed up to this entire system every 60 minutes.

I also have an off-site backup where data is backed up via the Internet to a third party location — which itself has a similar backup system.

This facility is located on the East Coast. I am located on the West Coast.

Now I mention all of this because my backup process is based on a simple premise.  My hard drive will fail at some point. It is a virtual mathematical certainty.

The problem with the FAA approach is they’re basing their entire operation (and I might add your life and mine) assuming that humans can be prevented from falling asleep at 3am just by commanding them to do so.

Seems unrealistic to me.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to just assume that on any given day some controller somewhere is going to fall asleep?

Wouldn’t it make more sense to design the system of people and technology such that even if one controller fell asleep somewhere, it wouldn’t actually matter?

Wouldn’t that be the more conservative, safer approach?

3) If unintentionally falling asleep is the problem, how do we get FAA controllers to be better rested in the first place?

Some researchers have indicated that unless someone is perpetually on the overnight shift, the body is just naturally tired at 3am.

They have advocated intentionally allowing controllers to nap during their breaks (where other controllers are already covering for the controller on break) as a way to re-energize overnight shift workers.

Apparently, this is already common place in other industries (emergency room medicine being one of them).

I don’t know if this is a good idea or not, but it seems to me it should at least be considered — especially if it is already working elsewhere.

But this idea has been shot down for the simple reason: “I will not pay FAA controllers to sleep on the job.”

That’s just political perception… as opposed to a fact-based analysis showing that letting controllers nap does not work.

The reason I’ve mentioned all of this is because much of what is happening with the FAA has its parallels in business — and perhaps even in your company.

Often there is a lot of debate around symptoms… and comparatively less analytical work to determine root causes.

If a root cause is isolated (and that’s a big “if”), then often there are a lot of opinions expressed and debated as to how to solve the problem.

Quite commonly, the CEO gets a favorite pet idea stuck in his or her head.. and forces the rest of the team to just follow along. This is one instance when stubborn determination is a liability.

I have seen this dynamic play out in $1M companies, $100M companies and $1 billion companies.

It is not a function of business size, sophistication or maturity. It is a function of human nature.

Don’t be this kind of CEO!

Here’s how:

* Seek a diversity of opinions in your executive team meetings.

* Encourage others to be candid by asking them to share their opinions first… keep your opinion hidden until after everyone else has spoken. I understand this is common practice in the military. If so, it’s a good idea.

* When your team is have the mother of opinion debates… force your team to bring facts to the table. What do we factually know about the situation? What do we factually know about each solution under consideration?

The idea that makes the most sense should win… not the idea that comes from the person with the most forceful personality or the most authority. (You’d be surprised how often this happens.)

* Appoint one person (a rotating role) to be devil’s advocate in every major decision meeting. It is that person’s role to point out everything that could go wrong… and to force the rest of the team to consider whether or not such risks can be managed somehow.

Accurate Thinking – for something so useful, it’s shame it’s not used more often.

Make sure you’re one of the CEOs that not only uses accurate thinking… more than that, have a mechanism in place (such as the ones mentioned above) to provide a check and balance when your own thinking is not accurate and you don’t realize it.

Comments

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Damian January 13, 2012 at 1:53 PM

Nice review of thinking far to common in our larger organizations these days. And the issue of sacred cows becomes inferred as well (can’t pay them to sleep).

Another place to look for ‘answers’ is competition or parallel organizations. In this case the equivalent to the FAA around the rest of the world. And their best practices. Stories I have heard is that Canada encourages sleeping on the job as well as other airline controllers around the world.

So a brainstorming approach is to work ‘logically’ at all the similarities to the issue and systemically consider what can be used from each of those examples. It may seem more cumbersome then considering your ideas off the top of your mind, but many times a systemic approach can actually be quicker, and ‘feel’ more fair by not setting anyone up to be wrong for just walking through all the options.

Terry April 16, 2013 at 6:25 AM

That is the basis of lean thinking (continuous improvement) – a practice made famous by Toyota (or Toyota Production System).

Peter Turla June 20, 2013 at 8:56 AM

You make important points in saying we should look beyond the quick fix and see what is causing the problem in the first place.
We tend to go for the downstream fix instead of looking for the source of the problem. We’re often focusing on better ways to mop the floor instead of fixing the leaking faucet.

Sean Oliver April 3, 2014 at 11:02 AM

Deconstruction of root causes simply isn’t done enough.

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