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Fiddling while Rome burns? As Hurricane Katrina dramatically showed, organizations must be able to develop a contingency plan and then swiftly execute it.

In my last column, I made a comment about the importance of contingency planning and consigned the topic as one for future discussion. Little did I know that that very same topic would soon assume national and even international prominence.

The world stood transfixed watching the tragedy of Katrina unfold. This catastropihic event was made even more tragic by the failure of three sets of anticipated first responders: the city, the state, and the federal government (FEMA). There were many stories of abject failure and dramatic heroism during the days immediately following the hurricane. However, it is not my purpose here to repeat the media coverage of the disaster, though it's significant to note that the reporters were able to get to and broadcast from places where the first responders did not appear until days later.

There appears to be plenty of blame to spread around for all of the first responders. We can only hope that the recommendations from a yet-to-be appointed independent board of inquiry will receive more attention and action from Congress and the White House than the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission.

The real objective of this column is to ponder what we have learned from the failure on many fronts from the response to the havoc wreaked by a natural disaster like Katrina. And one of the crucial lessons relates to contingency planning--of the lack thereof.

The Planning Process

Contingency planning is a special type of planning that provides a blueprint for responding to the risks associated with an unknown event. The contingency plan document should detail a timely and complete response to a specific risk or a cluster of risks. The specific processes embedded in the plan would depend on the nature of the risk. For example, the risk assessment for a retail operation would likely differ from that of a manufacturer or a transportation company. In general, the process part of the plan should include the following elements: risk assessment, risk evaluation and management, first response, collaborative management, subsequent stages of response, security, operations, stability, and performance evaluation.

In addition to incorporating the key process elements, a solid contingency plan should incorporate the lessons learned from past experiences with disasters. At least six important lessons learned emerged from the events of last month.

1. Just having a contingency plan is not enough. The City of New Orleans apparently had a contingency plan for evacuation. Yet the school buses, which were critical to carrying out the plan, were stored on low ground. So after the hurricane struck, they were under water. FEMA also had an evacuation plan for New Orleans that obviously fell short. Plans do not work if the managers in charge of executing them don't read those plans.

2. Leading indicators for potential risk need to be identified and monitored. Most of the U.S. watched the development of Katrina for at least three days before it made landfall. Yet it took almost four days after landfall before food, water, and medical care started to arrive for the survivors. What was going on during the time that Katrina was picking up steam in the gulf? What was happening in the four days after it hit?

3. Somebody has to be in change. Leadership is critical in time of crisis. Clear lines of authority speed action and response. FEMA's insistence that physicians and nurses be certified members of a National Disaster Medical Team resulted in medical volunteers being stuck in parking lots 90 miles from New Orleans. FEMA's mantra to volunteers that "You are not federalized" brings new meaning to the word bureaucracy.

4. Performance reviews lead to better contingency plans. A hard look at performance in crisis teaches good lessons about leadership, operational capability, and the adequacy of the contingency planning process. In the case of Katrina, the politics of federal, state, and local response will likely obscure a serious and comprehensive review of the response process. Regardless of who says they will take responsibility, any real accountability will likely be blurred at best or completely whitewashed.

5. Without clear metrics it is difficult to measure performance and accountability. When multiple agendas are at work, it is difficult or even impossible to know if you have succeeded or failed. This is true for both the public and private sectors. For the events of last month, the key metrics would address such issues as how long does it take for the stranded to be rescued, for pure drinking water to be available, for the medically needy to be evacuated?

6. Practice, practice, practice. As in fire drills and football, practice makes perfect. If something hasn't worked all week in the practice drills, how can the coach expect it to work on a Saturday afternoon?

I knew of one operations/logistics professor who gave his senior level operations class the same final year after year. He varied the details each year but the core assignment remained the same. The students were told that the main factory of their manufacturing operation burned to the ground on Friday evening. They had the full weekend to develop a recovery and restart plan for the factory. Did his students know what was coming in the final exam? Yes, and they started to organize themselves into teams and developed the central theme of their response well before they were given the exam question. Now, there's a concept!

We're told that Emperor Nero fiddled while the city of Rome went up in flames. Most businesses and government agencies certainly are not that bad--but Hurricane Katrina unfortunately surfaced some Nero-like tendencies among the first responders. The reality today is that organizations can't afford not to do comprehensive contingency planning and then act swiftly on those plans. It's not rocket science--and it all begins with a large dose of common sense.

Bernard J. "Bud" La Londe is professor emeritus of logistics at The Ohio State University
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Title Annotation:InSIGHTS
Author:La Londe, Bud
Publication:Supply Chain Management Review
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2005
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