Three lessons Harris' FAA troubles should teach us

Harris Corp.'s problems with the FTI contract can be a learning opportunity for other contractors.

Every company has its ups and downs in the market, and with the pre-Thanksgiving outage of the FAA Telecommunications Infrastructure, Harris Corp. hit a down.

The heat isn't off yet either. The FAA has assembled a panel to look at what went wrong with the system that allowed a router failure to bring the nationwide network to its knees for four hours.

Harris has been cooperative with our calls, but they aren’t saying a lot. But they are still proud of FTI, because before the Nov. 19 outage – since this is the FAA, I’m not using the term "crash" to refer to the problem – the network was faulted for only only two-hundredths of one percent of all flight delays in 2008. Not too shabby.

I asked a few experts to tell me what contractors can do to recover from these sorts of problems and what the best strategy is.

None of them are privy to the details of the Harris issue. I think their responses could apply to any embarrassment in the market.

First, it is good to remember there are two sides to the story: the contractor side and the government side.

“Many times, usually a consequence of profit motivation, contractors do indeed mess up. However, often they’re doing what they've been directed to, and that direction has been poor,” said one expert.

Second, weather the “public flogging” period but fight the urge to circle the wagons. When you circle the wagons, you in effect distance yourself from your customer. Remember, that customer is experiencing the same problem.

Third, the customer also might not have the resources readily available to deal with the crisis. Pull your best minds together and join forces with the customer. Work on deploying an accurate description of the problem. Determine what the immediate response should be. Develop a list of key people who need personal visits to make sure they have accurate information and understand what comes next.

If you take these steps in the immediate aftermath of a crisis and it works, you’ll free yourself from the public relations problem, which will let people concentrate on solving the real issue.

If it doesn’t work, you’ll know an “everyone for themselves” situation. You have little choice but to circle the wagons and tough it out. Good luck.

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