Running a business isn’t easy, and it’s definitely not for those who don’t handle multiple simultaneous problems well.
Every day brings a new and lengthy menu of worries – about employees, the competition, suppliers, customers, the office, store or factory, the economy, whether Amazon has an eye on your business and a few dozen other categories of threats, complications, hassles and unpleasant chores.
That’s when things are operating “normally.”
Frequently, they’re not. At a level well beyond and above the routine headaches of business are disasters, catastrophes, crises and debacles that threaten a business’s very existence.
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Disasters such as hurricanes that destroy the power grid and shut down the transportation network (Puerto Rico.) Catastrophes like epic amounts of rain that inundate a region (Houston.) Crises such as earthquakes that flatten buildings (Mexico City.) Debacles like customer-information databases plundered by hackers (Equifax and Yahoo.)
Every issue and cause gets its own designated day, week, month or year, and September, as it happened, was National Preparedness Month.
The federal Department of Homeland Security’s website describes the theme of this year’s edition as “Disasters Don’t Plan Ahead. You Can,” and describes the sort of planning individuals, families and communities should be doing.
It’s nice that disasters get a month of their own for the recognition they deserve, but the harsh reality is that, indeed, they don’t plan ahead. They’re perfectly capable of showing up, unannounced, at any time. Every day needs to be preparedness planning day.
But that’s a tough assignment.
Planning takes time, and business owners and managers don’t have a lot of it. Constant vigilance can be wearying. Complacency and forgetfulness set in, especially when disasters haven’t happened in a while, or are happening somewhere else. Attention gets diverted.
Thinking about big threats – catastrophic uncontrolled wildfires, for example – tends to drop on the priority list when there are lots of figurative daily small fires to put out. And when planning and preparation don’t happen, the disaster’s effects get magnified.
To switch the definition of disaster from the physical to the financial for a moment, the banking industry is notorious for recurring financial calamities.
The most recent one was a doozy. Like physical disasters, its effects could have been planned for. Unlike physical disasters, the financial calamity might have been warded off with some risk assessment, and paying attention to the industry’s own history.
Washington’s status with disaster awareness and planning is somewhat hampered by the fact that we don’t have as many or the same threats as the rest of the country.
We don’t do hurricanes here (although we can, on occasion, whip up an impressive wind storm.) We’re not in Tornado Alley. A snowstorm that would be considered mild elsewhere can paralyze the Puget Sound region, but those usually don’t hang around long. Floods tend to be localized. Wildfires, dangerous though they are, tend to confine themselves to rural areas, although threats to more populated urban areas are a possibility.
On the disaster scorecard, then, we come away pretty clean … except for that one little item, the earthquake (and its geological cousin, the suddenly non-dormant volcano). No one around here needs to have the term “The Big One” explained to them, or its significance.
But urgency in planning and preparing is another matter. There’s a hurricane season, and forecasters can issue warnings that one is coming (not that people still aren’t caught unprepared.) Earthquakes don’t announce themselves in advance. It’s been a while since we’ve had a shaker on the order of the Nisqually earthquake in 2001 – and that, impressive enough for its duration, was definitely not The Big One.
Further complicating the matter of earthquake preparedness is that while tropical storms and tornadoes are annual events, quakes of a size to cause significant damage operate on geologic timescales. One could hit in the next 15 minutes, or long after anyone reading this is in position to care.
Nonetheless, the recent spate of calamities might wake a few businesses up to the necessity of assessing the gamut of threats – whether earthquake or cyberattack – and how prepared they are to deal with those.
If one positive came out of the banking-industry debacle, it was revival of the notion of the stress test, an exercise in what-ifs to evaluate threats and preparedness. Businesses need to conduct stress tests of their own, and soon.
Way back in college days, classes that were supposed to meet five days a week often took Friday off. Officially the reason was that Friday was a “reading day” to catch up or get ahead on classwork.
In truth those days off were motivated by the mutual desire of professors and students to have a three-day weekend, and how much reading got done is open to skepticism.
Real life in the business world doesn’t provide many reading-day opportunities for planning, but astute business operators will carve some out.
Nature and the Earth will deliver only so many long-distance reminders of the importance of preparedness before serving up one considerably closer to home.
Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.