The preparations for and the handling of hurrican Katrina will be the subject of case studies in management workshops and courses for years to come. For anyone who was unconcerned about the quality of leadership and management in our government, this should cure their oblivious stupor. Folks died, children suffered trauma, and we all suffered through nights of the most hellish reality show ever aired on television as we watched in complete frustration as our officials didn’t “get it” and the stranded begged for help.
So, what is to be learned from this mismanagement crisis? Here are some random thoughts:
1. Process matters over structure. It is perfectly obvious that the current structure inhibits the process of responding to a crisis and delivering aid, security and medical resources rapidly to those in need. The primary reason for this is that there is no well defined process that cuts through all of the irrelevant structures (walls between agencies, city, state and federal government, etc.) and the aid can’t climb over the bureaucratic walls. When I help companies with my whole-system design process we begin by designing the actual work process, then we address structure with the question “what structure will optimize the ability of people to perform within the process?” Just as in a corporation, the customers don’t care about your structure, bureaucratic procedures, levels of management, blah, blah, blah! They only care that the process delivers the goods!
Someone, please, design the ideal process of responding to a crisis and then put a structure in place to facilitate that process.
2. Competence matters. Sounds silly. But, lets face it – every well functioning corporation knows that the job of manufacturing manager requires certain skills and the job of marketing manager requires others. It is the primary job of an executive to to put the right people in the right job. That is half the battle. The American people are responsible for the competence of our government, for voting for those, who demonstrate little awareness or concern that our agencies are led by people of both technical and managerial competence. Next time I vote, I want to vote for an executive who has demonstrated his or her ability to manage a large organization and that means appointing and attracting competent managers, developing strategy and holding people accountable for executing.
Or, is Mark Kleiman right in his posting that… “One of the most charming characters in Huckleberry Finn is the con artist pretending to the the lost Dauphin. At one point, he remarks: ‘Hain’t we got all the fools in town on our side? And ain’t that a big enough majority in any town?’ I’ve always considered that remark a depressing but fundamentally accurate insight into practical politics. But it turns out that His Majesty Looey the Seventeen wasn’t infallible, after all.”
3. When you need to make a change, do it quickly! The good news – the President did remove Michael Brown from command once it became clear that he was the wrong man for the job. Maybe a good lawyer, maybe a nice guy, maybe loyal – but a commander in crisis – NOT! Thankfully, he replaced him with someone, a Coast Guard Vice Admiral, who knows how to command.
4. Division kills, united energy and effort saves lives! I have just finished writing another book (yes, one more book!) and the title (my third title change) is One Force – The Essential Law of Leadership that Cuts Across Differences to Create the Irresistable Force of United Energy and Effort. All organizations, teams, business and governments succeed to the degree that they are able to create unity of energy and effort. Without giving a sales pitch on my book (which isn’t available anyway!) this whole case study is a good one to examine how united energy and effort wins and how divisions, fragmentation of effort, is destructive.
5. How about preventive maintenance? Anyone who has worked in a good manufacturing operation knows that every dollar spent in preventive maintenance pays dividends in less downtime, fewer defects and less waste. Neither the Congress nor the President were interested in the obvious preventive maintenance that was required to prevent flooding in New Orleans. The bill presented to Congress for improving the levees and restoring the wetlands that act as a barrier, was fourteen billion. No interest. This week Congress approved the Presidents fifty-one billion dollar emergency reconstruction request. No problem. Let’s get with it folks. It is a sign of intelligence to anticipate, to foresee consequences and act accordingly. We need a bit more intelligence in our decision making process.
6. Government matters. I am a business guy. I am an investor. I don’t like paying taxes either and I would love to have a small, yet effective government. But, over the recent past there has been an almost child like abhorence of government, an almost anarchist desire to “starve the beast” to destroy our very own government. I am for leaving in the hands of private industry and private initiative everything that can reasonably be accomplished by private hands. However, we need a strong and effective government. Anyone who is still living in the fantasy of anarchy or minimalist government should be condemned to the hell of watching the scenes from New Orleans on last weeks cable news shows over and and over and over again. Lets accept a sane level of government, impose budgetary discipline, and make government effective! It will save money and lives in the long run.That is neither liberal nor conservative – it is just common sense.
7. Empathy Matters. If you want folks to follow you, you must be able to convey genuine empathy for those same folks. In other words, if you don’t care about me, why should I follow you. We have all seen the Saturday Night Live parodies of Bill Clinton saying “I can feel your pain.” It gets a laugh. But consider the alternative… “I can’t feel and don’t really care about your pain.” That’s not funny! Whatever President Clinton’s other failures, he did have empathy and that empathy was appreciated by the people. The key to George Bush’s problem at the moment is that people feel, rightly or wrongly, that he doesn’t feel empathy for them. A good dissertation topic – How Presidents Convey Empathy.
8. And finally… this is not a political commentary. The lessons from Katrina cut across both political parties, local, state and Federal governments. The problems exposed by Katrina are ones that all of our politicians have contributed to. Now, it is up to the people to be sure that they get their priorities right. Of the people, by the people, and for the people… remember that?