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By Nick Wakeman

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Nick Wakeman

Three lessons Harris' FAA troubles should teach us

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.

Posted by Nick Wakeman on Dec 09, 2009 at 9:53 AM

Reader Comments

Mon, Dec 14, 2009 JJ Colorado Springs

“Duke" makes it sound like Risk Management is either totally useless or that Risk Managers are culpable in these situations. Neither is the case. Risk Management is a necessary and generally accepted, albeit imperfect, management practice given the complexity of modern systems. Risk Management acknowledges, up front, that every single contingency cannot be foreseen or "paid-down"; the numbers are just too big. So, what do we do? We attempt to identify those risks which we think might occur, based on historical data, and how often they will occur. Then we identify whether a given risk will have significant, moderate or low impact upon the operation. We "pay-down" (invest to preclude or mitigate) the high-probability-of-occurrence, high-impact risks first, then on lower probability-of-occurrence risks, until the budget runs out. If a low probability-of-occurrence risk does occur and its risk was not paid-down because it fell below the funding line, then that is an acknowledged shortcoming of the risk management system as it is applied throughout industry today. But it doesn't mean that the entire risk management system should be thrown out. You simply can't win them all. Experienced managers know this and are prepared to accept the consequences when the aggrieved party looks for a scape-goat upon whom to pin the blame. If you feel compelled to critique established management practice (which I do believe is a healthy thing) then you have the obligation to come up with a better suggestion for how to solve the problem. I don't see any such suggestion in "Duke's" comments. "Don't just tell me that we have a problem; tell me how to solve the problem!"

Thu, Dec 10, 2009 Duke

Smells like another example of Risk Management. Risk Management is the Art of Gambling in which the decision makers hold back development money and gamble that they will never have to pay off on the consequences for the low likelihood risks. Academic studies of Risk Management find that eventually even the low probability events will occur and that the early withhold decisions leave bystanders with neither prevention nor remedy. Inevitably the withheld money has always been misplaced when the time occurs for the held back money to be used to offset the cost of the consequence when the gamble turns to a losing position. The 'the network failed only two-hundredths of one percent' is symptomatic of Risk Management permissiveness to excuse and prioritize self interest over the consequences to others as evidenced by the failure to payout the held back money as compensation to the victims of the consequences of inaction. The FAA Panel's results will be interesting since the government tends to be an enabler in these situations. The consumer market tends to be more accountable when being sold a product where every dollar of $5000 is lost, the wheels fall off every 5000 miles, or the roof falls in every 13 years. The consumer usually would not consider that an acceptable level of performance and sues the Risk Management gamblers to make good on their bad bets.

Thu, Dec 10, 2009 Frank Bushman Lexington Park, MD

From a travelling public perspective one "aw shucks" cancels out 5 nines worth of "attaboys" always. However 99.9998 performance is very good. They have a failure rate of less than one per decade.

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