What to do when storms mean business

Profile picture Frank Oudshoorn
Frank Oudshoorn Published at

Storm Ciara, which wreaked havoc over northern Europe last weekend, causing travel disruption, event cancellation and all kinds of plans to be thrown into disarray, was a stern reminder of how vulnerable ‘normal’ life is to influences beyond our control. While the cost of Ciara is still being counted, Storm Dennis is already on its way. Coincidence or climate change, either way we have to brace ourselves again, perhaps better prepared this time. And the fast succession of these two severe weather events will get many people thinking about longer term strategies for mitigating storm disruption.

In the business world, storms often appear in the form of dramatically fluctuating demand. While this won’t leave you scrambling to get the roof fixed, company finances can still take a big hit when sales and production capability suddenly fall out of alignment. The business suffers damage and everyone is left wondering why it wasn’t better prepared. After all, storms are a fact of life.

Flexibility is the most valuable improvement
This is why storm preparedness should always be built into improvement projects, in the form of being flexible to change. Investing in improvement strategy and production capability will set you up for both leaps and plummets in demand. If you focus on the execution of the improvement, you’ll build new capability. This won’t just enable you to ride the wave of unexpectedly high demand, it will also mean you can optimise operations to efficiently cope when it falls away. In any case, the key lies in making these improvements before the storms hit.

“Here we go again …”
To some businesses, repeated bombardment of new initiatives can also feel like storms. I’ve seen this in the resistance often shown while I’m leading clients’ improvement projects. “Not another new improvement initiative!”, “How long will this new way of working last?” and “Do you really think this will be successful?” are typical. What these reactions tell me is that change previously introduced into the organisation wasn’t properly embedded. A likely case of change for change’s sake, without really leading to improved capability. These organisations have not been set up to cope with a changing business environment.

Focus on longevity
So what needs to be done differently? Personally, I’m a big believer in data. If you base your decisions on data, you avoid discussions about what the problem should be and how big the problem is – discussions which are nothing more than a waste of time and energy. Focusing on data, you can select the necessary improvements and devote your efforts and resources to solving the problem. The solution should come in the form of establishing a new standard, rather than a new procedure. It needs to be an accepted new way of working. If this acceptance is achieved, the implemented change will be lasting and the kind of comments quoted earlier will no longer be triggered.

Committed leadership
This is where change management comes to the fore. As a leader, you have to be consistent in providing the desired shared direction. You have to lead based on data and offer support where needed. You have to ensure the right people are involved, starting with those who are experiencing the issues-in-question day-to-day. From the moment the new way of working is defined, it’s your responsibility to explain, help and support its implementation. Getting a new way of working to stick takes around 100 days. That’s 100 days of hard work for you as leader, instilling new habits in your team members.

Ready for the next one?
Implementing new habits in your organisation is key to establishing the capability for coping with a changing business environment. This is how you prepare for future storms. Not by battening down the hatches, but by having the flexibility to adjust to the elements, maybe even using them to your advantage. Have you ever stopped to think about how that could work?

Frank Oudshoorn is Senior Business Process Consultant for R&G Global Consultants in The Netherlands

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