The Bad Exchange

The qualifying heats in Beijing, China should have been no problem for the American 4×100 Olympic relay team in 2008. But on the third leg of the men’s race, the baton fell and they were disqualified. Not half an hour later, the women’s team was disqualified also – for a baton drop at almost the same spot. The same thing has happened in Olympic races in Helsinki in 2005 and in Athens in 1997. Disqualified for a bad exchange.

How is it that the best athletes in the world can lose it all because of a failed instantaneous moment of coordination? Each of these runners made record time in their individual leg of the race but messed it up when they had to coordinate with someone else by successfully passing the “stick”. These seasoned athletes had practiced baton passes thousands of times – just not that many times with each other; and none under the unusual stress of that particular moment.

“No member of a crew is praised for the rugged individuality of his rowing.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

So what are the implications of a bad exchange on your emergency response efforts?

Many public utilities underestimate the importance of coordinating with others. They tend to reward individual achievement over the ability to work effectively as part of a team. As a result, you may have individuals who are the best in the business. But if they don’t coordinate, you could have problems. Maybe nothing as dramatic as failing to qualify for the Olympics; but in an emergency, accidents, delays, or costly mistakes could be a lot worse than dropping a baton.

“Gettin’ good players is easy. Gettin’ ’em to play together is the hard part.” ~Casey Stengel

Think it can’t happen to your organization? Strange things can happen to “all star” teams in the stress of the moment. A few examples:

  • Incident Command Center team members failed to thoroughly brief the incoming team about their restoration prioritization rationale. The new ICS team decided that they were going to make a few changes, causing the Operations folks to have to relocate crews and material. Result: a restoration process that fell way behind schedule.
  • A Logistics team bypassed the Planning team and ordered too little material. Field crews had to strip and re-use insulators on the job site. Result: more delays and added expense.
  • Mutual assistance crews arrived at a work location, but no one told the local management when they were coming in. No one was prepared with work packages and material. Result: crews that sat idle for hours.
  • An account rep’s replacement was unaware that a priority restoration list was not completely up to date. Result: an extremely upset hospital administrator, a complaint to the utility commissioners and a public relations mess.
  • Call Center supervisors were too busy to attend the end of shift briefing, and failed to receive the update on the latest communication strategy. Result: inaccurate VRU messaging and a raft of customer complaints.
  • The person who was supposed to relieve the company’s rep at the state OEM had a problem at home. He called his supervisor to let them know, but the supervisor never passed the word along to the team managing the incident. Result: a rep to the OEM stranded there for close to 24 hours, with no news about when he would be relieved.

“I am a member of a team, and I rely on the team, I defer to it and sacrifice for it, because the team, not the individual, is the ultimate champion.” ~Mia Hamm

So, what do we do about this? Well, comprehensive, up-to-date planning can help head off a host of problems like those above. Delve into the details of your process when something goes wrong, or when something needs improvement. Engage a cross-section of your front line personnel. The devil IS in the details, so try to understand and correct the underlying problems.

And, as we’ve said before, practice, practice, practice. Frequent emergency restoration exercises are the only way to truly master the hand-offs and coordination needed to effectively manage any event, large or small. We can all master our own stuff, but to truly excel we need to simulate the stress of the moment. We need to put our all-star teams under pressure to avoid the bad¬†exchange, the passing of the stick.

And one last thought about building teamwork: Before, during or after practice, it wouldn’t hurt for your team members to get to know one another and how each member’s emergency second role affects everyone else’s. You don’t have to make them cross rope bridges or hand-carry utility poles together. Something as simple as some unstructured time together could get them thinking – and acting – like a team that can handle the toughest hand-offs…and avoid the dreaded bad exchange!

“We must all hang together or most assuredly we shall hang separately.”
~Benjamin Franklin

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