Congratulations Tom May and NStar management.
Tropical Storm Irene gave you an incredible opportunity to show that you are a modern 21st century utility company that is attuned to the needs of its customers and responds to emergencies in a timely and communicative manner; that you are proactive and forward-thinking about improvements to infrastructure and contingency planning – especially as it relates to national security.
Instead, you failed so utterly and completely and epically, that it is almost beyond reason.
Rarely in combat does a general get five days’ advance notice about the approaching enemy, its strength, and the potential impact of its attack. Irene gave you plenty of time to plan a cohesive strategy for dealing with its impact. While other utility companies scrambled to draft thousands of out-of-state line workers to help handle the anticipated work flow, you brought in a measly 45 teams of 1-2 workers each. Sure there were problems getting more workers because of other states affected by Irene, but what about bringing in workers from states NOT affected? It would have undoubtedly cost more, which I’m sure is the principal reason behind your lackadaisical approach to emergency response.
Up-to-date intelligence on the battlefield is prized for a reason: it enables leaders to rapidly make decisions about the changing face of battle. And yet NStar’s communication with its customers – arguably the most important aspect of your business – could be bested by children using empty soup cans and string. Not only are your updates lacking detail and timeliness, but you have utterly failed to embrace the usefulness of social media sites. And here’s a hint: having two Twitter feeds that provide one or two useless updates per day is NOT using social media nor does it enhance your business profile. Twitter is about interaction; it is NOT about mere regurgitation of the company’s talking points while ignoring the comments directed at you.
We are in the midst of one of the worst economic periods in US history. Families everywhere are struggling to get by. So imagine the frustration felt by hundreds of thousands of people when – like I did this morning – they were forced to throw away hundreds of dollars worth of groceries because of food spoilage from not having working refrigerators and freezers. Compound that again by the added cost of taking an average family of four out to eat three times a day while we await restoration of power. What’s the potential cost per family affected by poor decision-making at the top levels within NStar – perhaps $1000 or more?
So here’s a little suggestion list for NStar Board of Directors to help make sure this doesn’t happen again:
1. Terminate Tom May. Fire him. Show him the door. As leader of the company, he is ultimately responsible for the severely disappointing lack of leadership and foresight when it came to dealing with Irene. A good leader leads from the front. Tom May sat back and let the task of restoring power fall to the thousands of line workers and teams that have done an amazing job despite suffering from such poor leadership.
2. Terminate your Director of Contingency planning. It’s the job of a contingency planner to plan for the worst and then have backup plans in place for backup plan failure. Clearly, despite 5-days warning that Irene was coming, NStar’s contingency planning department failed to properly maneuver assets into position that would have rapidly mitigated Irene’s effects. Put someone in charge of your contingency planning who actually understands the role.
3. Improve your communication. Really. Because frankly, it stinks. Putting out a crummy .pdf file of towns affected once per day is not communication in the 21st century. Using Twitter to throw out the same useless info is not communication in the 21st century, either. In the future, you ought to have full maps of affected areas showing real-time restoration efforts, deployment of teams, and anticipated recovery times. It’s not hard. It just takes a little effort. Try it some time.
4. Invest in infrastructure. In my neighborhood, we lose power a few times a year and when I call up, the machine tells me it’s due to “damage to high voltage equipment.” All the time? Look, our energy infrastructure is a key part of our national security. We’ve already seen the effects of cyber attacks on our energy grids. Until utility companies like you make a concerted effort to invest in the infrastructure and security of your systems, we’re vulnerable – not just to storms but to foreign enemies looking to disrupt our nation. Take some of the money you earn every quarter and actually invest it in technology that will improve the security of your infrastructure and update it so it is as technologically relevant as it can be. Some of the aspects of your network are decades out-of-date and basically obsolete. Fix it.
5. Give an immediate $200 credit to all of your affected customers. Many have spent far more than that amount on groceries and food and basic survival items as a result of your glaring failures. Do the right thing and give your customers some of that money back.
In short, Tropical Storm Irene showed the world the glaring mismanagement affecting most of our nations’ utility companies. Like so many other corporations, you have all grown fat and lazy due to your greed. You no longer care about excellence. You are willing to settle for “good enough.” But how many more people would be suffering if Irene had been a Category 2 storm, or worse? How much longer would your customers be without power because of your incompetence? How much more money would those without power be forced to spend just on basic survival items like food and water because you failed to properly plan despite days of advance notice? Your actions are completely and totally unacceptable to hundreds of thousands of people that rely on you – in some cases with their very lives. And all you’ve shown is that you are incapable of handling much of anything beyond kite-flying season, let alone some of the more impressive storms that routinely affect the northeast.
You should be embarrassed and ashamed of your failures as a company. But let’s hope you’re not too arrogant and ignorant that you can’t learn from those mistakes so this doesn’t happen again.
Jon F. Merz