Saturday, January 23, 2010

Work-Arounds in Haiti

A good friend of mine, Mike Wnek (pictured above), was down in Haiti shortly after the devastating earthquake hit there on January 12, 2010. His story was well-documented in the news (click here, here, and here), as he and his contingent were one of the first groups to deliver desperately needed food and water to the ravaged city of Port-Au-Prince.

While tons and tons of supplies and resources were being bogged down at the airport in Port-Au-Prince or being re-routed to neighboring nations, Mr. Wnek was riding shotgun on a rented truck as his group made their way from the Dominican Republic to the Haitian capital with a truckload of survival supplies. Only their courage and resourcefulness made it possible for them to successfully complete their voyages across Hispaniola. Their actions were truly remarkable.

Once I had time to reflect on what my friend and his group had done, I began to assess their actions in an objective way (this is easier said than done when people are performing heroic deeds to save lives). Once I had assessed their actions from a business perspective, I realized that they had made great use of one of the all-time most frequently used tactics--the work-around.


Pretty much anybody who has ever worked in an organization has had to resort to work-arounds to get things done. Work-arounds are informal, alternate methods for completing work that frequently arise in response to ineffective formal work processes. Basically, whenever doing work the normal way is just not practical, we resort to the path of least resistance.

Folks in the the Lean world understand this concept all too well, as the presence of work-arounds is one of the best indicators of poor process flow. Sometimes a process is unreliable, thus requiring an expert to babysit the work. Sometimes there is too much buffer between processes, thus requiring an expediter to push the work to the front of the line. There is no limit to how many work-arounds we might find in a workplace.

Work-Arounds on Projects

On projects, every bit of the work might be completed through work-arounds. This is quite common in organizations that are not organized for project work. These types of organizations typically feature a traditional vertical hierarchy, and are usually geared for only ongoing operations, not temporary projects.

The unfortunate soul who is assigned to lead a project in this type of organization usually has to navigate a byzantine web of work-arounds cutting across several vertical silos to get anything accomplished. This sounds a lot like what my friend, Mike Wnek, had to do in Haiti.

Quick Fix in Haiti

When it became apparent that the most obvious needs of the earthquake survivors, food and water, were not being met by the official agencies in charge of the relief effort, Mr. Wnek and his group immediately constructed a makeshift work-around to get aid flowing. They went to small grocery shops in the Dominican Republic and bought their entire stocks of food and water, and then proceeded overland to deliver the goods.

Forget the airport. Forget the air drops. Forget bureaucracy. Forget red-tape. Just get food and water to the survivors! This was a classic example of the use of work-arounds, albeit in a highly remarkable context.

Learning from Haiti

Why did my friend and his group have to resort to these desperate work-arounds? Why didn't the aid start flowing into Port-Au-Prince sooner from big relief agencies? Why did the focus early on seem to be on riot control instead of the delivery of survival resources? Why were evacuation efforts diverted? Why was the airport bogged down? Lots of questions.

If we can say that disaster relief efforts are a form of project, then we can probably deduce that many of the same factors that we see on everyday projects are in play on relief efforts as well. Maybe we have vertical silos that aren't communicating with each other. Maybe decision-making is not being made by the people who understand the situation on the ground. Maybe not enough contingency planning had been performed (there is no time to plan a relief effort after the fact). Many factors could have contributed to the delays in Haiti, but there's no way to completely understand the situation from afar. Maybe an expert in large-scale project management will someday publish a case study on the response to the Haitian catastrophe.

Moving Forward

Understanding the lessons learned from Haiti is critical. Without it, we are doomed to repeat the failures of Haiti, Katrina, and elsewhere. But we can not blame individuals! The people working on disaster response projects deserve our respect and appreciation. Just as on everyday projects, the system is usually the culprit, not the individuals. We need to have better project delivery systems in place to support the efforts of individuals.

If we don't improve our systems, we better pray that we never find ourselves in the middle of a natural disaster. After all, there are only so many people like Mike Wnek who have the ingenuity and courage to establish a lifesaving work-around supply chain in a disaster zone. Do you want to rely on heroics?


J. Levy said...

Great examples of struggling business practices and heroic effort "diving catch" made by your friend Mike.
Perhaps you will someday soon be the PjM who plans/develops systems for relief agencies in times of disaster. Good job!

J. Levy

Ryno said...

Thank goodness for people who aren't afraid to be creative in a crisis.

Great article!

Eduardo Guerra said...

Please convey to your friend how admirable is what he is doing for Haiti, especially, given the circumstances and his drive to remove each obstacle out of his way.

Thanks for sharing this story with us and for your insightful analysis of the similarities between projects and disaster relief efforts.

As someone that practiced Project Engineering in my home country Venezuela, I know how "flexible and creative" you have to be with fewer resources than in the USA and how you get used to expect the unexpected...or else.

Great blog!!

Michael Lombard said...

Eduardo, I see great opportunity to apply lean project management principles in Latin America. Lean/agile is all about being flexible and creative. There would of course be some cultural barriers to overcome (in some countries more than others), but the upside is huge. Same goes for disaster relief projects.

Matt Stambaugh said...

Way to go Mike Wnek for being a hero and way to go Mike Lombard for trying to pull lessons from this disaster. Very good post.

Pete Abilla said...

Great article - thanks for writing this.

Sandra said...

Great article! Thanks for offering this perspective.