Post-Harvey Restoration: Consider a Deming-Based Approach

Guest post by Lori Fry, Principal with Navigator Management Partners, originally featured as a post at    Follow this link to listen to our first podcast with Lori.

The effects of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma will be felt for years. AccuWeather has reported the cost of recovery efforts will exceed $290 billion. That’s BILLION. With a “b.”   And that’s just hard costs: clean-up, replacement of vehicles and belongings, home repair and reconstruction.  That does not account for lost wages, lost business revenue, lost businesses, and worst of all, loss of life.

The 2017 hurricane season highlights the high cost of short-term decisions that have long-term and often incalculable consequence. While we can’t prevent severe weather, we can control what how we prepare for it – and in doing so, we can mitigate those losses that we often don’t know about until it’s too late.

Not by accident I’m sure, CBS news aired “Sea Change: How the Dutch confront the rise of the oceans.”   Henk Ovink, Netherlands’ water ambassador – the water envoy for the King of the Netherlands, spent two years in the United States working in areas affected by Superstorm Sandy. “I said to [his US colleagues],” said Ovink, “did you think about preventing the disaster? And they were like, ‘preventing the disaster? No, we couldn’t. We have to make sure we RESPOND FASTER.” It gets better…He went on to suggest to his colleagues, “…suppose that there is no disaster because you prepared better?” Prevention wasn’t on the radar – their first inclination was RESPOND FASTER.

This week, 60% of Floridians – all of Florida – are without electricity.  Florida Power & Light indicates many will be without power until September 22 (11 day outage).  Two weeks ago, toxic waters flooded Houston’s streets, businesses and homes; and chemical plants went up in flames. And Katrina swamped New Orleans a decade ago.  Following Katrina, we found out The Army Corps of Engineers feared the New Orleans levees would fail.  On the heels of Harvey, The Atlantic Monthly reported (August 28) that “catastrophic floods have been anticipated for some time,” and the Houston Chronicle “called flood control the city’s ‘most pressing infrastructure need,” and blamed inaction on a lack of funding.

What the Dutch seemed to know, and what we have yet to systematically embrace is that the price of inaction (employing hope as a strategy) far exceeds the cost of prevention.

For 1,000 years, the Dutch have been waging war with the ocean, because 26% of the country is below sea level. In 1997, the country built a massive storm surge barrier – the Maeslant Barrier – to safeguard Rotterdam for the future.  The cost of engineering and building the barrier could be calculated: time and materials. In contrast, it’s nearly impossible to calculate the total cost of the losses associated with our recent severe weather.

I don’t know the extent to which the Dutch are acquainted with Dr. Deming’s theory of management – but their approach brings Point #1 of Dr. Deming’s 14 Points for Management to mind: create a constant purpose toward improvement.

  • Plan for quality in the long term (at some point, there will be another hurricane)
  • Resist reacting with short-term solutions (if the levee design was tested and failed, learn from it; don’t simply reuse it)
  • Don’t do the same things better – find better things to do (consider PREVENTION over responding faster)
  • Predict and prepare for future challenges, and always have the goal of getting better (the next storm could be a decade away or tomorrow; – use available time to your advantage)

The Dutch – through the building of Maeslant Barrier – show us that we have much to gain by investing in continuous improvement; Houston demonstrates that we have much to lose if we don’t.

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