The Preparedness Illusion

Did you ever experience an incident on the work floor? When you have a few years of work experience, you can probably think of an example – or more than one. How was that incident managed? Probably a few guys from the operations department conducted a meeting and they came up with a satisfactory solution. The QHSE officer did an internal investigation and came up with a root cause analysis and some lessons learned. We managed the incident well, and apart from some lost time, a bouquet of flowers to the directly involved and a few extra invoices to pay for repairs, the consequences were limited. We continued the business like any other day.

When we gain a lot of experience in our field of work, and over the years we accumulate a small library of well managed incidents, we easily start to believe we’re quite capable of managing incidents. And we are. Incidents and accidents maybe nasty, but well manageable.

We’ve got our safety culture right where we want it. We work safely, it’s our top priority. That’s what we tell our customers at every opportunity. Accidents? No, they don’t happen at our facility.

Until…

There’s a Major Emergency that truly disrupts daily routine and affects a large part of the business.

Q: did you assume the cause of the Emergency came from within the company?

Temporarily, we can’t deliver our products to our clients and we have to postpone deliveries from our suppliers. Now, the Emergency starts to really hurt the business. As most of our departments are involved, this thing is multi-disciplinary right from the start. There’s a bit of time pressure involved, we have deadlines to meet – which we can’t, pending the incident. The Emergency also affects our neighbors and they’ve posted about it on social media. As the Emergency disrupts our daily routine and does not adhere to our carefully laid out procedures, our weekly operations- and sales meetings are not going to solve the issues. Departments that generally do not work together suddenly have to agree on actions – with high stakes – within one meeting, while all have their respective priorities. At the beginning of the meeting the issues are not even clear yet, let alone we have solutions ready that are widely agreed upon 15 (!) minutes later.

15 minutes – that’s the amount of time a well-structured Crisis Management meeting lasts. Ever tried it?

Our make-shift meeting lasts for an hour and a half. We’ve managed to find solutions for the most pressing of issues. During that time, the Emergency has developed. Some of the developments we did not see coming. The Emergency apparently has some consequences that we did not imagine and were not prepared for. We’ve managed the short-term operational issues, but we may have missed out on reputational issues, clients who have temporarily bought their supplies from a different supplier and got a fair deal there. The media have not been very kind to us either, but that may have been caused by the fact that it took us three days to come up with a statement, as the CEO was on business trip in another time zone and difficult to reach… Oh, and in the months after the emergency 5 key employees leave the company as they’ve lost trust in the organization and two of our prospective clients have signed contracts elsewhere… Our 4.5 star rating on a major search engine has dropped to 2.5, and three other suppliers are now above us. With hindsight, the Emergency has escalated into a crisis.

Now, we’ve made an assumption…

We assumed this incident happened on Monday morning, and besides the CEO, everyone was in the office. What would happen if that same Emergency had occurred on a Friday evening while most are practicing sports, are in a bar or otherwise enjoying their weekends? The team who has to solve the crisis, do they all have the access codes to our building and will they be ready to act within the hour?

When normal line management is no longer suitable to solve Emergencies of this magnitude we speak of “crisis management”. And that’s a whole different ball game then line management – or managing an individual incident, for that matter.

A Major Emergency – the term crisis covers it better – is best managed before the Emergency happens. The question is: did you manage that future incident yet? If not, you’d better start preparing, as there’s no time left once it happens.

If you still think: “I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen in the future, so I can’t prepare for it” – we need to talk.

Bas Poelmann

Crisis Management Trainer
Falck Safety Services

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