The most effective method of crisis management is to take steps to avoid the crisis happening in the first place. And the simplest way to achieve that is to recognise and respond to the warning signs which precede just about every crisis.
That lesson is painfully reinforced by the Pike River coal mine disaster in New Zealand, where 29 men died in an entirely preventable gas explosion.
When the official report came out this month, the Royal Commission said there were repeated warnings of potential catastrophe, with methane gas reaching explosive levels 21 times in the six weeks before the fatal explosion in November 2010. But the report concluded that managers were so focused on short term coal production they failed to consider the risk of explosion and ignored the warnings.
Tragically, it happens all too often. Contrary to the notion that crises are mostly sudden, unexpected events, data from the Institute for Crisis Management in Kentucky (www.crisisexperts.com) shows that around two thirds are what they call “smouldering crises” – where managers could have and should have seen warning signs and taken action. Unfortunately, these signals frequently go unheeded by management, and it is often because of an “illusion of invulnerability” – that serious problems only happen to other people. Indeed, US crisis expert Ian Mitroff says one of the most significant barriers to effective crisis management is denial.
It is a sad irony that a common metaphor for early warning about potential problems is “the canary in the coal mine.” Because some mine operators seem to have a reputation for ignoring such warnings. In fact two of the best known recent mine disasters are famous for all the wrong reasons. Australia’s Beaconsfield mine collapse in 2006 is remembered for the remarkable rescue of two survivors after two weeks trapped underground, which made a great TV movie. But the coroner found the mine’s rock-fall history made it “glaringly obvious” that the roof support system wasn’t satisfactory, yet miners were put under pressure to meet tonnage requirements and a man died.
Just a few months earlier in West Virginia, the Sago coal mine collapse received worldwide attention when news spread that 12 trapped men were still alive. However management quickly learned the report was false, yet said nothing. Moreover, it was later revealed that the mine had been slapped with over 200 safety citations, of which more than a third were significant and substantial.
While not every crisis has such terrible consequences, these disasters are a brutal reminder that crisis preparedness is not just about identifying potential risks. The key to success is converting that knowledge and concern into practical action which reduces the chance an issue will turn into a crisis. For example, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 the official inquiry titled its report A Failure of Initiative and concluded that the problem was not a lack of information, but a lack of initiative and leadership to improve the level of protection.
In a similar vein, the report into the Pike River mine disaster called it an “unrelenting picture of failure at virtually every level.” Managers everywhere need to look at their own organization honestly and ask: How well prepared are we? What processes do we have in place? What can we do to improve? Need help? Contact Tony Jaques