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How many engines does this plane have?

July 13, 2012

Last night was instructive…

My work with groups on the fundraising operations often centers on the delicate balancing act between the countervailing accuracy, speed, and volume. Expectations and perceptions about perfection often play a countervailing role here, too. That is, our efforts may be spinning along nicely, but an anecdotal error or oversight can throw a wrench in things simply because our expectations were too high. What most folks don’t think about often enough is that perfection is typically too expensive to deliver. I’ve written about the front-of-the-line approach to help handle this. I’ve also recommended that organizations set attainable expectations around exceptions, then adjust perceptions to better match reality. So, this is the prologue to my instruction last night…

A few months ago, during a discussion about gift processing accuracy, I heard “Well, I think our letter should be perfect. I mean, you fly a lot, so don’t you expect your flights to be perfect?” My answer: “Nope. I expect them to take off and land safely.”

Last night, I was reminded of this conversation when I found myself on an MD90 with only one operable engine last night. The situation reminded me that I will take great exception management systems over the false promise of perfection any day (lesson #1). After take off, our flight apparently lost an engine. This sounds scarier than it is; the pilots didn’t tell us this until we landed.  Once off the plane, we learned a new one would be procured and, within a few hours, we were back in the air (lesson #2).

Lesson #1 here is straightforward: Systems that help you notice errors are essential and these must be implemented and doggedly maintained. The pilots could have ignored the error; one engine worked and the flight wasn’t that long. But, great operations should identify problems to fix as much as they keep problems from happening.

Less #2 was more subtle: I knew within two minutes of take-off (for about the 88th time this year) that something was off. But, the pilot maintain confidence in the cabin by communicating effectively and not over-sharing information.  Once on the ground, we were given updates and times to expect future updates. As inconvenient as the situation was, communication helped us maintain realistic expectations.

My two hopes for you this summer are a) that you can continue to calibrate your operations through better and better expectation management and b) safe travels!

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One Comment
  1. Rob Scott permalink

    This is great — I might add to your lesson one that the system that flags errors must also be cognizant of the severity of the problems. “We’re out of salted nuts” is a lot different a problem, with a different severity and requirement for attention, than “we lost the starboard engine.”

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