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.


In the United States, one of the hot news stories is how an air traffic controller fell asleep on the job and the pilot of an inbound plane had to land without any help from the tower.

The immediate response by the Federal Aviation Administration was that individual was fired.

Here is my thought for you today.

In this situation, what is the real problem?

That’s the key question.

It is the question I always ask my clients whenever they see something undesirable happen in their business.

Phrased differently, is the fact that now a total of three air traffic controllers have fallen asleep on the job a problem… or is it that just a symptom of an underlying problem?

Here is my rule of thumb.

If you have a undesirable outcome in your business one time — it is probably just a random event.

If the same undesirable outcome happens in your business two times — I start getting suspicious that you may not have a random event, but you might have a systemic problem hiding beneath the surface.

When the same undesirable outcome happens in your business three times… then I “know” it’s a systemic problem (or at least it is the safest position to assume you have a systemic problem) and I start hunting for it.

In the case of the FAA, the question is: What is the real problem here?

Is it that workers are too tired?

Is it that workers are falling asleep?

Which one is the real problem?

The reason it is important to define the problem is because you can not solve a problem if you can’t define it!

For example, the current approach is to make it illegal for air traffic controllers to take naps during the breaks.

The premise behind this approach is that by insisting air traffic controllers are not permitted to be tired, they won’t be.

I can’t help but ask the FAA, “So…. how’s that strategy working out for ya?”

In my experience, many companies spend a lot of time attempting to solve symptoms, rather than underlying problems.

All that accomplishes is the underlying problem expresses itself in a different way…. sometimes in multiple ways.

It’s like that game “whack a mole” — where a mole pops its head up and you are supposed to whack it with a hammer.

If you don’t stop the mole (the root cause problem), then all that happens is the mole pops its head up somewhere else.

You don’t really solve the problem, all you do is get a new “hole” somewhere else.

So my challenge for you today is to make a mental list of every headache you have in your business right now.

Jot down all those “problems.”

Take a few moments and consider each “problem” carefully, and ask yourself: Is that a problem or a symptom?

You especially want to do this with any “problem” that has occurred multiple times.

Once you have your list of “real” problems, just focus on solving them.

Quite often, by solving the underlying problems, multiple symptoms of that problem go away with it.

So if you have a morale “problem,” maybe you don’t really have a morale problem and what you have is a quality control problem… where your employees are tired of getting criticized for the company making products that don’t work well.

You could throw a party to boost morale, but all you are doing is trying to put a band-aid on the symptom. Solve the underlying problem, and all those other symptoms go away automatically.

That is why it is so vital to distinguish between the symptoms in your business vs. the underlying problems that cause them.


Powerful Lessons from the iPad 2 Launch

TweetDo yourself a big favor (trust me on this). Today at 5pm, the iPad 2 goes on sale at Apple retail locations across the U.S. If you are anywhere remotely located near one, go to the store at 4:30pm. The purpose is not to buy an iPad 2, the purpose is to stand there and […]

Read the full article →

Think Globally and Increase Opportunities

TweetThe annual Forbes 400 list is out, and Americans continue their downhill slide.  It used to be that one out of two billionaires was an American. It is now down to one out of three.. a drop in market share from 50% to 33%. So which countries are gaining the most ground? It’s the BRIC […]

Read the full article →

The Market Wants What the Market Wants

TweetMy wife and I were talking last night about how the now former President of Egypt Mubarak must either be the most tone deaf person on the planet or the most stubborn. This morning I wake up to discover he resigned… finally. Geez, how much of a message from the market does one need to […]

Read the full article →