Storm Boss: Check, Please!

It’s a vanishing, heroic breed:  The Storm Boss.  The living, breathing, bio-analogic compendium of all necessary knowledge of the resources and processes required to restore thousands of distressed customers quickly, safely and permanently – until the next crisis, of course.  A veritable eye of the storm in a sea of stress and uncertainty.  Whatever will we do when the last Storm Boss rides off into the sunset?

While we poke a little fun, we mean no disrespect.  We’ve known some pretty remarkable Storm Bosses who could work wonders, even in the days before technology – OMS, GIS, SCADA, satellite phones, you name it. They were the ones who learned all the hard lessons of past outages.  They were the key supervisors with all the institutional knowledge, the ones who knew who to call and how to get the best from people.

But now they are being reassigned to other parts of the company as organizations seek to develop personnel and broaden these skill sets. And they are retiring, if they haven’t already, sometimes leaving critical knowledge and expertise gaps behind them when they go.

How do you replace a Storm Boss, especially in such an increasingly complex, digital, technology-dependant field as utility restoration?  One small but essential piece of the answer lies in the humble, all-too-frequently ignored checklist.

High intensity fields of work, like the airline industryand the military, employ checklists to decrease errorsof omission, improper implementation of procedures and protocols,and to decrease human error under stressful conditions.   In the medical field, recent studies show that surgeons who use checklists significantly improve their chances of procedural success and higher quality outcomes.

How ironic! A recent survey found that only 20% of surgeons said they would use a checklist to prepare their teams for a procedure. Yet 60% of the same group said that if they were to undergo a procedure, they would want THEIR surgeon to use a checklist!

Storm rooms and operating centers really aren’t that much different from surgical operating theaters.  The health “damage” needs to be assessed before proceeding.  Equipment needs to be in good working order and easily accessible.  People with the right skill sets need to be in place, and everyone needs to know their roles and what is expected of them. Process steps need to be well understood and executed with precision.

The big differences: surgical procedures don’t go on for days with multiple shift changes; weather isn’t usually a confounding variable; and the people on a surgical team are experts, not “second roles” or fill-ins.  Storm restoration has its own peculiar stresses.

Let’s face it, to fly an airplane, perform surgery, or restore utility service, there is simply too much information, too complex, for individuals to manage and retain without the analog assistance of good checklists. People are more highly trained than ever, have access to more information, use more technology – yet failures still occur.

So let’s consider a checklist for effective checklists:

  • Based on worst-case experience: previous lessons learned from after-action reports
  • Based on best-case experience: industry best-practice benchmarks
  • Comprehensive: accounts for mundane and routine matters that are easy to overlook under the strain of other priorities
  • Concise: condenses large quantities of knowledge in an easy to understand fashion
  • Scheduled: different checklists may be triggered by successive phases of restoration
  • Stress-reducing: Makes the reliable management of complexity a routine
  • Goof-proof: Accounts for the fallibility of human memory and attention
  • Required: Administered every time, no matter what, no matter who is in charge

To our knowledge, there is no downside to using checklists.  Insisting on their use might be annoying to those who’ve “been there, done that, know it all, don’t need it.”  For the rest of us, conscientious checklist usage can protect us from adverse management or regulatory review.  In short, they can protect us from screwing up.

Yeah, checklists can be pretty boring, even a little irritating.  But they also help keep people alive, lights glowing, and airplanes flying.  Check it out, and let the Storm Boss rejoice!

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