What the FAA can teach us about icebergs

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been in the news quite a lot lately. The story reminds us to look out for icebergs in our own organizations.

What are icebergs in business? Icebergs are huge problems where only the tip is visible. Hidden from view is a big, nasty problem that can sink your company.

On March 23, an air traffic controller at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport fell asleep on the job. Two planes subsequently landed without any contact with the control tower. No accidents occurred, but the incident caused a national uproar.

Additional reports of employees sleeping on the job quickly surfaced and the uproar intensified. It became clear that there was a widespread problem with chronic fatigue among controllers working overnight shifts. Since late March, eight employees have been suspended and the head of the Air Traffic Organization has resigned.

This ain't new
FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt has been making tough statements in response to this problem.

"None of us in this business can ... tolerate any of this," Babbitt said. "It absolutely has to stop."

Unfortunately, Babbitt is either experiencing extreme denial or has been sleeping on duty himself. The FAA has been tolerating or ignoring the chronic fatigue issue for years. Here are just a few examples:

July, 2001. Two planes nearly collided on a runway in Denver due to an air traffic controller error. The controller had worked three shifts in the past two days.

September, 2001. A plane was cleared to land in Denver on a runway closed for construction. The controller had only slept two hours between shifts.

August, 2006. Another near-collision, this time on a runway in Chicago. The controller had gotten only four hours of sleep during a nine hour break between shifts.

April, 2007. The National Transportation Safety Board sent a letter to the FAA that expressed concern over air traffic controller fatigue and made reference to 80 fatigue-related incidents since 1989.

Icebergs become even more dangerous when managers are unwilling or unable to acknowledge their existence. The longer a problem is allowed to continue the more likely it is to end in disaster.

Searching for icebergs
High performance managers are constantly searching for icebergs in their organizations. Here are three things every manager should do at the first sign of a big, nasty problem.

Step 1: Don’t assume it is isolated. Smart managers should go looking for evidence of similar problems. The FAA treated the sleeping controller at Ronald Reagan Washington National as an isolated incident, but there was already a pattern in place. Over the past few weeks, intense national scrutiny has revealed many more troubling examples of chronic controller fatigue.

Step 2: Check to see if the system is broken. Icebergs are usually the result of systematic failures. Controllers sleeping on the job isn't solely due to a few lazy, unprofessional employees. The evidence clearly indicates the FAA has a widespread problem with air traffic controller scheduling and staffing levels.

Step 3: See the bigger picture. Smart managers understand the strategic implications of fixing the problem and others like it. Changing controller schedules and adding staff may help reduce chronic fatigue, but sleeping on the job isn't the only performance problem dogging air traffic controllers. A recent article in the Washington Post reported a 51% increase in recorded errors by air traffic controllers in 2010. The FAA should take a broader view of the situation and identify ways to improve controllers' overall performance.