A while ago, one of the major news stories in the U.S. was about how an air traffic controller fell asleep on the job — forcing the pilot to land a plane without help from the control tower (very dangerous).

It is the third time this has happened.  If this happened in a corporation, it is precisely the kind of problem where a consulting firm is called into investigate and recommend a solution.

Here are the traits of this situation:

1) High profile

2) Everybody with power disagrees about what to do about this situation.

3) The stakes are very high — in this case lives are on the line.

Consultants are called in for these kinds of situations for several reasons. Consultants can sometimes be seen as more objective than an internal team.

Existing leaders may disagree with each other, but with an independent third party involved, there is nothing to disagree with yet… which sometimes makes it easier to analyze the problem properly.

Most of the opinions as to what to do next are just that… opinions.  Lots of ideas. Lots of criticism back and forth.

Basically, it’s just a big mess every which way you look at it.  And that’s when they stick you in the middle of it.

I recently wrote an article on this topic for the business owners and CEOs that make up the market in my CEO coaching business.

I thought you might find the article interesting.

It is not explicitly about case interviews or consulting, but if you look very carefully, you will see an issue tree implied by my article.

And as a prospective consultant, you can get a sense of the kinds of issues that you might get involved in and why clients find it valuable — even if the actual solution itself ends up being fairly straightforward.

### Thoughts on Sleeping Air Traffic Controllers ###

In the United States, one of the hot news stories is how an air traffic controller fell asleep on the job and the pilot of an inbound plane had to land without any help from the tower.

The immediate response by the Federal Aviation Administration was that individual was fired.

Here is my thought for you today.

In this situation, what is the real problem?

That’s the key question.

It is the question I always ask my clients whenever they see something undesirable happen in their business.

Phrased differently, is the fact that now a total of three air traffic controllers have fallen asleep on the job a problem… or is that just a symptom of an underlying problem?

Here is my rule of thumb.

If you have a undesirable outcome in your business one time, it is probably just a random event.

If the same undesirable outcome happens in your business two times, I start getting suspicious that you may not have a random event, but you might have a systemic problem hiding beneath the surface.

When the same undesirable outcome happens in your business three times… then I “know” it’s a systemic problem (or at least it is the safest position to assume you have a systemic problem) and I start hunting for it.

In the case of the FAA, the question is: What is the real problem here?

Is it that workers are too tired?

Is it that workers are falling asleep?

Which one is the real problem?

The reason it is important to define the problem is because you can not solve a problem if you can’t define it!

For example, the current approach is to make it illegal for air traffic controllers to take naps during the breaks.

The premise behind this approach is that by insisting air traffic controllers are not permitted to be tired, they won’t be.

I can’t help but ask the FAA, “So…. how’s that strategy working out for ya?”

In my experience, many companies spend a lot of time attempting to solve symptoms, rather than underlying problems.

All that accomplishes is the underlying problem expresses itself in a different way…. sometimes in multiple ways.

It’s like that game “whack a mole” — where a mole pops its head up and you are supposed to whack it with a hammer.

If you don’t stop the mole (the root cause problem), then all that happens is the mole pops its head up somewhere else.

You don’t really solve the problem, all you do is get a new “hole” somewhere else.

So my task for you today is to make a mental list of every headache you have in your business right now.

Jot down all those “problems.”

Take a few moments and consider each “problem” carefully, and ask yourself: Is that a problem or a symptom?

You especially want to do this with any “problem” that has occurred multiple times.

Once you have your list of “real” problems, just focus on solving it.

Quite often, by solving the underlying problems, multiple symptoms of that problem go away with it.

So if you have a morale “problem,” maybe you don’t really have a morale problem and what you have is a quality control problem… where your employees are tired of getting criticized for the company making products that don’t work well.

You could throw a party to boost morale, but all you are doing is trying to put a band-aid on the symptom. Solve the underlying problem, and all those other symptoms go away automatically.

That is why it is so vital to distinguish between the symptoms in your business vs. the underlying problems that cause them.


A quick closing thought. It is very common that what a client perceives as a problem is really a symptom. It is your job as a consultant to help them distinguish between the two.

You start that process by interviewing your clients to figure out qualitatively what is going on. This helps you generate a hypothesis. Then you quantify your intuitive hypothesis with numbers, which gives it a feeling of objectivity… which helps immensely with the political situation.

So the value of what you do is not just in figuring out the right “answer” to the problem posed by the client. Quite often the process you bring to the client is valuable in and of itself.

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