Posts Tagged ‘Equipment Failure’

Tragic Example of Equipment Failure

Tuesday, June 12th, 2012

No Single Point of FailureIn our framework for disaster risk, we place equipment failure in the “high frequency/low severity” category, an example of “everyday” disasters.  But the consequences of everyday disasters can be devastating, even when the source of the failure is trivial. A tragic example of equipment failure occurred when a freezer malfunction damaged one-third of the world’s largest collection of autism brain samples. The loss could set back brain research by decades. The collection was critical to the research of the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center.

The Boston Globe reports that the freezer, which was located in the McLean Psychiatric Hospital, a teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School, shut down in late May. The damage was not detected in a timely manner. The freezer is protected by two separate alarm systems and as an additional precaution, staff checked the external thermostat twice daily to verify that the brain tissue samples were stored at minus 80 degrees Celsius. But while the thermostat registered minus-79 degrees, a safe range to store the brain samples, the actual temperature was 7 degrees. The freezer area is securely locked and monitored by surveillance cameras. An internal investigation into the incident is underway.

This tragic loss, despite the multiple layers of protection in place, should prompt all of us to stop and think: can you identify the equipment critical to your small business operations? What measures have you put in place to protect it?

The High Cost of Discounted Goods

Wednesday, February 11th, 2009
Bright and Shiny, But Not Necessarily Inexpensive

Bright and Shiny, But Not Necessarily Inexpensive

In Prepare for the Worst, Plan for the Best: Disaster Preparedness and Recovery for Small Businesses (Wiley, second edition, 2008), I advise readers that it is always best to purchase the current versions of computer hardware for their small businesses. Rarely is it cost-effective to purchase an earlier model of hardware for the reduction in price. Recent discount offerings by major retailers, such as Circuit City, have prompted readers to ask me if I would like to revise my original advice. After all, with major retailers discounting their inventory by 80% in bankruptcy sales, doesn’t this represent a great opportunity for small businesses to save some money on their purchases? The answer is: no, not necessarily. Consider the purchase of a computer printer. The printer’s functionality is dependent of the hardware (the printer itself) and the software (the printer driver which delivers instructions from your computer to the printer). Whenever the computer operating system is upgraded, the manufacturer of the printer must write software for the new printer driver, which they typically make available for free download. Now you see the competing needs of two different business models.

The manufacturers of computer operating systems generate revenues from software licensing fees, which are like an annuity stream. But the hardware manufacturers only earn revenue at the point of sale: when you purchase their printer. If they have to keep writing and distributing new printer driver software every time the operating system is upgraded, they incur open-ended and unlimited costs. They could invest substantial amounts of resources in supporting obsolete hardware to keep up with software upgrades. That is why hardware manufacturers limit their support to a fixed period of time, typically a year or two. So that discounted printer model you purchase at the online auction or the bargain basement may appear inexpensive. But then you attempt to set it up and find that you don’t have a current printer driver to make it work optimally with your computer system. Then the cheap printer becomes an incredibly expensive paperweight. So I am sticking with my original position: it is generally best for small businesses to invest in the current models of computer hardware, irrespective of retailer discounting.

Emotions and Redundancy

Tuesday, January 20th, 2009
Aircraft Lifted Onto the Barge

Aircraft Lifted Onto the Barge

Following an earlier blog entry, over the weekend, the aircraft for USAirways Flight 1549 was lifted by cranes from the Hudson River where it had submerged and was then placed on a barge for subsequent transport to an area better suited for a long-term investigation. You will note that it is directly adjacent to the World Trade Center site, in the residential community of Battery Park City, where I lived on and after 9-11-01. I am viewing these events from a different vantage point, from directly on the Hudson River on the New Jersey waterfront exactly opposite of where I used to live. The emergency workers have been on duty round the clock, with police boats, helicopters and the Coast Guard maintaining a visible presence. While this accident was thankfully unrelated to the events of 9-11-01, for the residents of this neighborhood, the presence of emergency workers has a certain emotional resonance and frankly, I am glad I am more removed from the scene of the action this time. I had written earlier about dealing with emotions following a disaster, so just knowing that the sight of the police boats and Coast Guard craft were likely to provoke a response from me gave me the ability to mute that response. This is an important insight for anyone who has worked through a major disaster and thankfully, this one ended with no loss of human life.

Drawing on another theme of our preparedness messages, the role of redundant systems is critical. Although the investigation into the cause of the emergency landing of US Airways Flight 1549 has just begun, investigators have already revealed that both engines of the aircraft failed simultaneously. When I lived in Zurich, Switzerland, I would often take short, over-land so-called “City Hopper” flights to London or elsewhere for business. Those aircraft were equipped with four engines, consistent with European safety regulations, rendering negiligible the risk of simultaneous engine failure for all. That safety standard exists in the U.S. only for military aircraft and of course, for cargo aircraft, the redundancy required to mitigate the risk of equipment failure is still lower. As small business owners, the lessons we can draw from this accident include (1) the importance of redundancy to mitigate the risk of equipment failure, (2) the critical importance of employee training as demonstrated by the flawless performance of the airplane pilot and (3) the issues surrounding emotional responses post-disaster.

Tech Frustration

Wednesday, November 26th, 2008

According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, failures of communication devices are quite common. Over the past year, among more than 2,000 adults surveyed:

•    44% of home Internet users experienced at least one connection failure;
•    39% of computer users experienced at least one hardware failure;
•    29% of cell phone users experienced at least one failure of their phones;
•    26% of those who use Blackberries, Palm Pilots or other personal digital assistants reported at least one device failure; and
•    15% of those who use iPods or MP3 players experienced at least one incident in which the device did not work properly.

Individual consumers were selected for polling in this particular survey, but it is reasonable to assume that a survey of small business owners would yield similar results. Consumers who use the Internet, computers, cell phones and other devices may report frustration with periodic failures of equipment, but for small businesses, the consequences of equipment failure are more serious. Mitigate your risk as part of your overall disaster planning:

•    Make sure that you have service level guarantees and appropriate support for your equipment purchases.
•    Train your users in the proper use of equipment. The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project also reported that 48% of adults who use the Internet or a cell phone need assistance in setting up and using new devices. This calls for an investment in proper installation and use.
•    Finally, build in redundancy to cope with the device failures that will inevitably happen. In Prepare for the Worst, Plan for the Best: Disaster Preparedness and Recovery for Small Businesses (John Wiley & Sons Inc., second edition, 2008), I recommend, for example, that you keep spare hardware in your inventory to immediately replace failed equipment.

“Tim the IT Guy” had an interesting take on the reported need for assistance in setting up computers and cell phones: fire the IT support team and hire only employees who are tech-savvy.  Or you could do as I do and invest in training upfront as IT personnel are too expensive to be used for desk-side hand-holding.

Illustrating a Lesson

Thursday, September 11th, 2008
Look carefully to see what is not obvious

Look carefully to see what is not obvious

I recently did a live radio interview with Tron Simpson of KCMN-AM in Colorado Springs, which took me back to my last visit to Colorado Springs a few months ago. The occasion was the annual small business awards luncheon hosted by the local Small Business Development Center. I was flattered to have been invited as the keynote speaker and after the luncheon, I led a three-hour workshop on small business disaster preparedness. I had been invited by Matt Barrett, the Director of the SBDC. Matt and Assistant Director Lisanne McNew were most gracious hosts. On my return home after the program, I had an experience that perfectly illustrates the concept of everyday disasters and the importance of having good processes in place.

My return flight departed Colorado Springs for Dallas-Fort Worth, where I had to make a connecting flight back to the New York City area. As we passed over Kansas, I heard a loud pop and the cabin rapidly lost pressure. Passengers became nauseated as we were jostled about in our seats like beans frying in a pan. Shortly thereafter, the pilot announced that we were returning to the airport in Denver where better aircraft maintenance facilities were available and, if necessary, alternate flight connections.  I had many hours in the airport terminal to make the acquaintance of my fellow passengers, as we had been instructed to remain in the gate area. Of course, everyone asked everyone else about the purpose of their travel and I mentioned my book and the event in Colorado Springs. Then one of the passengers who was seated next to the emergency exit door where the seal had broken (that was the “pop” we had heard) stated that he had suspected a problem as soon as he took his seat. He reported to the cabin crew that he could hear a hissing noise through the door. His concerns were dismissed. But as the aircraft pulled back from the jetway and towards the runway, the hissing sounds grew more ominous, particularly after takeoff as we gained altitude. In the context of the six disaster categories outlined in Prepare for the Worst, Plan for the Best, we all agreed that this was an example of equipment failure.

When I related the details to Stefan, he offered a different diagnosis. Stefan has a degree in Aerospace Engineering and he told me that aircraft always have multiple redundant systems to protect against the risk of a single failure. At least three things had to go wrong simultaneously with that flight in order to account for our experience. The risk of any single one occurring in isolation is small; the risk of all three striking simultaneously is negligible. Stefan diagnosed the problem as human error; the issue around the faulty seal should have set off an alarm in the cockpit. Perhaps the pilot was fatigued and did not notice. The pre-flight mechanical inspection should have surfaced the problem. It appeared that either the airline did not have proper procedures in place, which seems unlikely, or, more likely, the procedures were in place and they were not followed.

Garden of the Gods, Colorado Springs

Garden of the Gods, Colorado Springs

By the way, in case you are wondering about the photographs that accompany this blog post, I took them at a local site in Colorado Springs, the Garden of the Gods. Matt was kind enough to show me this beautiful natural setting when he drove me back to the airport. Matt spotted a deer, which sought to hide itself behind the trees, while I did my best to get a picture. If you look at the “V” shape between the main branches of the tree trunk, you can see the deer’s eyes, ears and nose. Sometimes you have to look very carefully to see beyond the obvious.