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Industrial Management's bimonthly column by Dan Carrison (July/August 2010)

Managing readiness

The Gulf oil spill reminds us that crises can erupt without warning, despite the many precautions taken by experienced organizations.

While most CEOs would agree that preparing for the unexpected is a wise policy, many might recoil at the costs associated with such an ongoing program. The old adage “practice makes perfect” often is subordinated under another venerable adage: “Time is money.” And in this challenging economy, the resources required to implement costly companywide drills for an event that may never happen might strike senior management as prohibitive.

The rank and file is probably even more resistant to the prospect of time-consuming “practice” exercises. “We are busy enough engaged in the real thing,” they seem to say. “It’s called making a living. We are at grips with actual problems every day; why distract us with hypothetical ones?” It is hard enough to get some of these people out of a building during a scheduled fire drill.

But there is a strong business case to be made for implementing periodic crisis-management drills, even if the dreaded crisis never materializes. These exercises can help us perform better under “normal” conditions, which can be hectic enough.

In fact, crisis situations and routine business challenges have much in common. In either situation, we must respond quickly in order to seize a fleeting opportunity, have, at our fingertips, the proper support contacts and the right phone numbers, occasionally centralize team management to avoid needless duplication of tasks on the part of hurried team members in the field, employ “backup” personnel and equipment, share best practices so that employees globally can learn from the success of a few, and manage calmly in the heat of competition.

This last point – the need for calm presence of mind – should not be underestimated. Airline pilots, through realistic drills in the cockpit simulator, become expert in emergency maneuvers they never have performed – and hope never to perform – in real life. Yet their performance during normal, uneventful flights is enhanced by the confidence of knowing what to do should an emergency arise.

The interesting thing about realistic simulation exercises is that the subconscious mind, say the experts, cannot differentiate between “practice” and the “real thing.” When the astronauts in the glorious days of the Apollo lunar program returned from the moon, their colorless remarks seemed to disappoint the media. “It was just like the drills we’d done a thousand times before,” was a common reply to the breathless question, “What was it like to be on the moon?”

Actors go through grueling rehearsals before opening night and consistently claim that “the more grueling the rehearsal, the easier opening night.” Why should business be any different? Are our challenges so easily met that frequent, realistic “rehearsal” is unnecessary?

Realistic practice sessions afford us the opportunity of seeing something “done right” by people we want to emulate. We all learn through our mistakes, and mistakes are certainly better made during a drill rather than during the real thing. If the simulation is sufficiently – and even perhaps frighteningly – true to life, then the “real thing” may be a step down, not up.

We don’t have to wait for a “crisis;” it is already here, in the form of global competition. Our customers expect immediate satisfaction, and if we cannot give it to them, they believe that there are many, many other companies to choose from. It may not be fair, or even true, but our customers increasingly perceive our service or product as a commodity. On the assumption that “he who prepares, wins,” we should be ready for anything.

Dan Carrison, a business writer and consultant, has authored or co-authored four management books: Semper Fi: Business Leadership the Marine Corps Way, Deadline! How Premier Organizations Win the Race Against Time, Business Under Fire and From the Bureau to the Boardroom. Carrison is a general partner of Semper Fi Consulting and founder of www.ghostwritersinthesky.com. Carrison lives in Los Angeles, where he teaches corporate communication for the University of La Verne. He can be reached at dan.carrison@gmail.com.

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