You need to know that I am grumpy. At 1:29am this morning, my electricity was turned back on – after 3 days of being off. I mean completely off – nada, nothing – since Monday night at 3am. Then, as I dragged myself out of bed for a 4am wake up to get to the airport, I discovered that the municipality, in order to make up for actually supplying me electricity, had shut my water supply off. So, sitting on an airplane next to some poor soul, I have not yet had a morning shower. And, to top it all, when I arrived at Joburg airport, the check in system had crashed and the queues were out the building. Remarkably, it looks as if we land in Cape Town on schedule. But more of that below, with some lessons for everyone.
The facts

  • The suburb I live in (most of the time), Bedfordview – on the east of Johannesburg – is serviced by two major electrical supplies – a primary supply and a backup cable. These are underground cables, laid in 1978.
  • In February this year, the municipality was installing CCTV cables, and damaged the primary supply line. They informed Eskom, the electrical utility supplier, as they were meant to do. Eskom then added this cable to its maintenance list, but electricity was not disrupted as it was supplied via the backup line. That list is way too long, not being serviced enough and is a mess. I know this because we do work with one of the companies that is outsourced by Eskom to do the maintenance, and they have spoken of “disasters waiting to happen” because Eskom is running its maintenance too lean. This is a cost cutting exercise – and I have said much on that topic on this blog.
  • At 3am on Monday morning, the backup line faulted, with a major coupling being dislodged. Electricity to more than 100,000 people was instantly cut.
  • It was left to Radio stations to let the public know what had happened. It was just short of 3 days later that electricity was restored.
  • Eskom’s spokesmen consistently lied to the public and to journalists, and even when their lies were consistently shown to be false, they continued to reiterate them.
  • To date, Eskom has issued no apology.

So, what lessons can be learned…

There are some simple lessons for every business:

  • If things go wrong, speak up. There is no value in hiding. We all know things can go wrong. A few years ago, the eastern seaboard of the USA was swathed in darkness, and took anywhere from 24 to 48 hours to be fixed. The difference is not that they had electricity and we didn’t, but that their utilities companies responded by going on a media offensive, giving information and keeping everyone informed. The same happened at the airport this morning. Complete silence. No-one communicated to the long lines of people who were waiting. So misinformation flows, and tempers flare. Information could calm all this down. Easily!
  • GET SOME MEDIA TRAINING. I mean, really, how difficult is it really to be a good spokesperson. (1) Don’t lie – in this modern information rich world, you WILL be found out. (2) Admit fault. It helps people forgive you. (3) Under promise and over deliver. On Wednesday morning, Eskom promised that we would have power “by midday”. Later they said, “this was a best case optimistic estimate”. What??? Its us poor sods without electricity who should be dealing in hope and optimistic estimates. eskom should eal in facts. If they had said up front that we would have power by Friday midday, and then surprised us with power on Thursday morning, we’d actually (bizarrely, and if only for a while) have been ecstatic at their brilliance. As it is, we’re just angry at their incompentence. (4) Keep us informed. Be available for comment. (5) make sure you call centers take calls!! (6) and don’t ask us to be patient – Eskom told us it was a minor fault on Tuesday, and asked us to be patient. This wore very thin by Wednesday evening, as we lit candles for a fourth time.
  • Don’t strip your costs and capabilities to the bone. I wrote about this in January (read it here), little knowing I’d be its victim in April!! This is a failure of leadership. Pure and simple.
  • Underpromise and overdeliver. Its always better than vice versa!

So, now what can Eskom do to fix their reputation? OK, they needed one in the first place for that question to be worth anything….
I remain an optimistic African. I just don’t like being left in the dark.

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