Preparation is key for snow or terrorist acts — Steven Spear

MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer Steven Spear

MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer Steven Spear

From The Boston Business Journal

The brief foul weather last month, and the near-miss this past week gave Bostonians one last reminder of 2015’s record snowfall and the shutdowns and disruptions that resulted, and probably left many wondering, “How vulnerable are business and public agencies to any emergency?”

The answer is that most can be much better prepared, showing real toughness in shaking off big disruptions and agility in getting up quickly.

How so? Preparedness depends on getting immersed in the details of what you deliver, with compulsive attention to what human and technological resources are harnessed to do so. But this is not a one-and-done static list. Your system’s dynamics have to be constantly stress-tested to find where they’ll fail, with tabletop trials, simulations, and drills: lose of data center power, highway shut down and cut-off from key resources, transit shut down and stranding of mission-critical staff.

We’ve seen both the negative and the positive side of preparation in practice. Once, when blizzards hit the Northeast, many passengers were stuck inside airport terminals. At some airlines though, it was worse: passengers were trapped on runways, unable to depart or deplane. Why? According to airline staff, their mission was getting passengers to their destinations. So, despite the weather, they loaded planes, pushed back, but then got stuck.

The basic problem was weak linkage between the mission and deep understanding of operating methods. Absent stress testing, managers didn’t see how something going wrong locally could “snowball” into systemic chaos. A delay here, a crowded gate there, and everything went to hell. Today, this airline quickly delays or cancels flights because of a hard-won appreciation for where it lacks resilience.

In contrast, after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, local trauma centers responded brilliantly, saving patients’ lives, despite injuries more severe than hospitals normally handle.

The “normal” work was performed, but with more cycles at faster pace. There was the adaptation-conversion of surgical slots and suites from elective to emergency surgery, bolstered by staff situational awareness some where system stress was most severe and where they were needed as additional resources. And then there were routines — created and practiced after 9/11 and the Aurora movie theater shooting — and which had been drilled for “just in case” possibilities at Fenway Park on Independence Day, and which worked on Marathon Monday.

To their credit, these hospitals didn’t rest on their laurels. While the first articles celebrated heroism, later ones emphasized how hospitals self-critiqued, to be even more agile next time. Things will go wrong. The question is: will you prepare to be prepared by doing the necessary off-line work to understand how you operate, to discover where you’re vulnerable, and to prepare for how you’ll adapt? If you don’t, you’ll have to “wing-it,” and that’s wicked poor insurance.

See the Boston Business Journal post here (subscription required)

Steven Spear is a senior lecturer at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and School of Engineering. He is the author of “The High Velocity Edge.”

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