Monday, May 20th started out as a normal day for people in Moore, Oklahoma, a community of about 56,000 people about 10 miles south of Oklahoma City. By late afternoon the world had turned into rubble and ruin for many in this town. Rescuers worked through the night to pull people out from under destroyed homes, businesses and schools. 29 people died including 9 children. Clean up will take months. Recovery will take years.
Immediately after the tornado passed, the local police, firefighters and EMTs took action. Within hours, the Oklahoma National Guard arrived at the scene with fully rehearsed rescue teams. They had the tools, skills and communication processes in place to call in more help. The additional help was triggered based on what they saw when they got there. By nightfall the Red Cross had shelters set up. The nearby medical facilities were ready for an emergency and all hands showed up to help the wounded. Now, neighbors are showing up to cook, find pets, deliver gloves and generally serve. The town is mobilized.
What kind of leadership is required to get a community through a crisis like this? What can we, as students of leadership, observe and thus learn and apply in our areas of influence?
- Act quickly – There is no time to hesitate when a crisis occurs. Decisive action is important in triage. Even in a business context this remains true. Get moving on the critical issues of life, safety, continuity, sustenance. Know where your staff is. Get the facts. Gather your resources. Assess the damages. Send out the first responders. If the problem is with a supplier, fly there. If the issue is in your own manufacturing plant, visit and evaluate. If the problem is with a new product launch, get to where the action is and gather the information at the source.
- Ask for help – There is no virtue in going it alone. If the problem is really a crisis, call in others. Get suppliers, partners and other functional groups involved in solving the problems. Tell the boss.
- Communicate regularly – Perhaps the information will not be precise. Perhaps you will have to revise after more is known. But getting information out to those impacted will serve two purposes. First, you will calm those impacted. You and your team know what is happening and action is being taken. Second, you will get everyone on the same page. When should updates be expected? Who is doing what? What are the near term instructions?
- Create structure – Put together a war room with a steering team. Put people in charge of different parts of the problem. Ask for a cadence of information flow. Meet regularly.
- Be visible – If you are running a local team, be there. If you are running a global team, be there virtually by calling into team meetings or even creating video updates. Be accessible. Talk with the team casually to understand mood and to get facts from all levels. Your ears are the most important tools you have during a crisis. Listen.
- Be a servant leader – Pick up the symbolic shovel. Contribute at multiple levels even if just a little. Your job is to show others that you are in the situation with them. If you are seen as above it all, the team will not hit its full potential.
- Have a plan prepared beforehand – Of course, this is wise. But many companies, families, small businesses are not thinking about the possibilities of a game changing emergency. Thinking through an action plan before the crisis can save crucial minutes when something happens. Put the plan in writing. Practice with a staged crisis situation. Involve your immediate organization and those throughout your value chain. Business Continuity Plans can make all the difference when a crisis occurs in your company or supply chain.
News of the tornado in Oklahoma struck a nerve for me. There is no way to predict when a crisis will occur in communities and similarly, there is no way to predict crisis in business or supply chains. The only certainty is that crisis of some sort will show up in the future. Be ready and be a leader when it happens.
In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.
Dwight D. Eisenhower
Reshma was pulled out of the wreckage of the Bangladesh factory fire after 17 days. She survived in a dark 8 foot by 10 foot space with room enough to move and food and drink enough to survive. After finding over 900 dead in this factory, the miracle of Reshma brought joy to the rescuers. This factory garment worker did not give up her life making our clothing but somehow she puts a face on the ethical questions troubling me and many others who work in the field of supply chain management. Should we know when the factories making our products are unsafe? Do we have a responsibility for our far flung supply chains? I believe that the answer has to be yes. But fulfilling that responsibility is a difficult task.
There are attempts to organize companies around the principles of safe, humane, ethical working conditions. In the electronics industry many companies are members of EICC which is the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition. Their website states that “the EICC is a coalition of the world’s leading electronics companies working together to improve efficiency and social, ethical, and environmental responsibility in the global supply chain.” HP is a member and also has its own social and environmental standards and policies. Since 2005 HP has audited over 700 suppliers in its 1000 plus company supply chain. During those audits non-compliances are found. The offending company is to fix the non-conformance and report back upon closure. Is that enough? Other companies do more or less work on this topic. How can you judge what is enough? Can we expect to get to zero non-compliances? Perhaps our goal should be an ever decreasing number of non-compliances approaching zero.
The garment industry is trying to get a coalition together for monitoring and compliance throughout the supply chain. It is called IndustriALL. There is some dragging of feet on joining. Gap is not ruling out joining this group but so far it is doing its own work to monitor factories for safety. After the Bangladesh fire there is more momentum around this topic.
And what about human trafficking? An organization called Not For Sale is focusing on this topic. Their website states that this is a $32B business and it is tied to almost every product we use. As consumers we don’t have the information to even vote with our dollars. This organization is stressing the need for transparency. If we know where the problems are and they are visible to consumers there would be a move away from those markets. The economic pressure shifted apartheid policies in South Africa and it can make a difference here as well.
What are the “to do’s” for supply chain leaders? Here are the few I can suggest:
- Join the coalitions available. They aren’t perfect but they at least get a collective body to call attention to a problem.
- Create transparency in your own supply chain. Know who your suppliers are and who their suppliers are and who their suppliers are…Spend the money to audit.
- Keep this high on the agenda. Talk about supply chain design with this in mind. Cost drives many decisions but take the total cost into account. Understand the cost of the monitoring required. Put the right system in place to do the right thing.
- Participate in the dialogue. Talk to other leaders about this topic. Engage with the government and with non-profit organizations. Take a position.
- Design your supply chain with ethics in mind. Enough said.
“You have just dined, and however scrupulously the slaughterhouse is concealed in the graceful distance of miles, there is complicity.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson
There is a bucolic meadow over the next hill. It is filled with just the right amount of sun and shade. Crystal clear water flows over a little waterfall into a pond. A sumptuous picnic is set out for you. The temperature is a balmy 74 and there is a hammock with your name on it. Ahhh, but to get there you have to climb up the hill in front of you. You have to make this climb while tieing complicated knots. And…it is raining on this side of the hill. This hike could take hours… Would you go for it or would you hunker down under an overhanging rock to tie your knots? You might chat with your fellow hikers and suggest:
- What if there is just another hill after this one?
- What if the picnic isn’t that good after all?
- What if there are bears over there?
How do you motivate humans to climb a hill in search of a better state? In business-speak, how do you get your employees to embrace difficult change even when there is a promised bright outcome? This is a problem faced regularly in the fast paced world in which we live. It is no longer ok to slowly evolve. Companies, functions, teams and individuals need to adapt more quickly or they will lose to another.
I have been steeped in the art and science of transformation recently as I’ve tackled challenging change projects with my corporate clients. It is a fascinating subject and one that I long to master. Given the rate of change I’ve just discussed, I don’t think it is possible to master anything completely. As soon as you “get it” more information is available. But I am going to climb the difficult hill to get to a better place of understanding.
Here are the truths I know to be the foundation of transformation:
- Pick a grand vision with some heart. Continuous improvement is another subject. It is a good thing but not the same thing. And if you plan to involve more than a few people, you need to tug at heartstrings.
- Get on the same page. The leadership team needs to have a shared view of the future state. How to get there can be up for debate but the vision needs to be clear.
- Debate and even disagree. Transparent concerns are much better than passive aggressive resistance. Get it all said out loud and then pick a path and move forward.
- Stay nimble. There will be redirects. Adapt to them but keep the direction constant. Success isn’t a straight line but it should be measurable and should track in the right direction.
- Make room. Carve out the bandwidth to do the work. Stop doing some things to take on this new work. Come on. People were already busy. If you really believe in the future state then you can justify either a redirect or an investment of resources.
- Anoint the right leaders. Pick change leaders who are both good managers and good leaders. Execution, details, driving for results are hallmarks of good management. Picking the right path, inspiring others and breaking through inevitable obstacles are outcomes of good leadership.
- Build a change engine. The skill to transform organizations is becoming a key differentiator. There are very few companies that can avoid this need and those that can are probably small and stagnant. If a company is growing, shrinking or evolving these skills are critical. Train, develop, practice, reward, repeat.
The truth is, we are good at changing. Think of where you were 20 years ago. Now, harness that energy and knowledge of how far you have come to fuel your own change engine.