What are the Lessons of New Orleans?
The response by public officials to the Hurricane Katrina disaster will be analyzed for years. Can lessons learned in the private sector instruct us in minimizing the suffering and damage from inevitable future calamities?
Management is a complex process. Good plans executed poorly may be worse than poor plans executed well. This is never truer than at times of disaster, in which plans made from afar have to be implemented by those on the scene first, often with limited preparation. If public and private organizations fail to learn from what happened in New Orleans, that may be the ultimate tragedy of a series of events that evoked feelings ranging from anger to embarrassment from the largest group of respondents to any of these columns thus far.
Among the lessons learned from New Orleans, according to Josie Graham, were these summed up in three words: "Plan, communicate, and execute . . . do not assume. We all know what happens when we assume." Beverly Withers observed that "those within private organizations did far better than those in the public system." Katherine Lawrence developed that further in commenting, ". . . Some people fell off the radar because they weren't part of ‘the plan' . . . Someone forgot to do the return-on-investment, and we as a nation will now pay a pretty price, not only monetarily but also emotionally." Gail Reichert commented: "Perhaps there's too much policy and procedure in place and not enough thinking." For David Brewster, lessons included the "failure of strategic planning to consider the small, frontline detail . . . a matter of getting close enough to the micro-detail to be able to plan with simple, practical ends in mind." Dennis Crane added that "true leadership does make a difference." Related to this was Yuko Nakanishi's observation that "any ambiguity in terms of responsibilities . . . must be eliminated ASAP."
Responses that these lessons suggested ranged from study to action. Andrew Williamson sounded a common call for a "blue ribbon committee similar to the 9/11 Commission to study all the sources of the problems that contributed to this disaster." Margaret O'Keeffe suggested that "the expertise should come from relief organizations like the Red Cross. They should be listened to for counsel in scenario planning before the next natural nightmare hits. . . ." Nikhil Zaveri proposed that ". . . there should be training and development of citizens by the government, involving the corporate world in the entire process, so that citizens could meet these kinds of calamities with ease and cool minds." Eric Schmidt echoed this call to action in commenting that "readiness is only achieved through practice." E. Hassen observed that "events cannot be predicted with a long lead time. Every organization needs to be more flexible, more modular, more adaptable." As for staffing, Paul Jackson recommended: "Get rid of bureaucratic leaders and put in their place entrepreneurs, and the problems we saw won't happen in the future."
If these are some of the lessons, how good is the learning process going forward? Who should take the lead in the teaching—that is, identifying best practices in the public and private sectors and making sure that they are disseminated and acted upon? Rather than putting primary emphasis on the placement of blame, can the studies resulting from the disaster be important contributors to the learning process? If so, what will have to happen? What do you think?
There will be an endless number of post-mortems concerning the tragedies that befell the residents of New Orleans last week. More important are the actions, if any, which may result from them. In this regard, can lessons learned in the private sector be brought to bear in minimizing the suffering and damage from inevitable future calamities?
Many personal experiences come to mind in thinking about this question. The first was my involvement three years ago in the reenactment of a plane crash at a major U.S. airline that has never suffered an accident-related passenger fatality. Executives were assigned to "battle stations." A command post was established. Along with the CEO, teams were designated to be flown to the crash site within hours after the tragedy to make necessary arrangements with the next-of-kin of the simulated victims. This was not a one-time exercise; it is carried out periodically. Ironically, the mythical crash had occurred at the New Orleans International Airport.
Another was a successful effort to tie the radio communication system of a private security company, of which I was a director, to that of the New York City Police Department. A direct result has been a number of arrests by the NYPD of criminals fleeing buildings guarded by the private security firm. Contrast this with reports of the initial reluctance of the Federal Emergency Management Agency to evacuate certain hospitals in New Orleans because they were private.
Many large retailing organizations with facilities on the Gulf Coast made extensive preparations in advance of the incoming hurricane. Only hours after the storm had receded, all but a handful of employees had been contacted and offered financial as well as other forms of assistance.
Clearly, there are significant differences between the challenges facing private firms and public agencies at times of disasters. Employees are easier to track and help than other citizens, some of whom may be unemployed. The magnitude of the responsibility is incomparable. For example, the repair and maintenance of levees is a task requiring long-term vision and effort difficult to muster in a political environment in which deferred maintenance is an easy and invisible solution to budget problems for elected politicians with limited terms. (The irony of this is that the average tenure of the CEO of a large company today is shorter than that of the typical U.S. president.)
The real tragedy will be if we learn nothing from New Orleans that leads to effective action. But just what should these lessons be? And what actions should result from them? In this case, can the public sector take some of its cues from private organizations? And what should these be? What do you think?