Hurricane Katrina and Walmart

Does anyone remember Walmart’s contribution to help victims of Hurricane Katrina? We remember that it happened. But perhaps we should understand how it happened. Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto provides an answer.

After the Hurricane Katrina of August 29, 2005, the government’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) teams could not quickly get supplies into the disaster zone to help people affected by the Category 5 hurricane. At least 1,245 people died. People were injured and in peril. Hurricane Harvey’s final death toll has not yet been counted. Perhaps lessons learned from Katrina will help.

Extraordinary Solutions to Pressing Problems

The federal agency could not move, ending up almost as paralyzed by bureaucracy as the people by the storm. In a thoughtful analysis of how ad hoc teams sometimes outdo a more structured system, author Atul Gawande describes Walmart’s upper management that set a singular, loose yet focused direction by simply stating, “The company will respond to the level of this disaster.” His next utterance allowed the teams to form. “A lot of you are going to have to make decisions above your level. Make the best decision that you can with the information that’s available to you at the time, and above all, do the right thing.” Acting on their own authority, Walmart employees began implementing life-saving activities that were not possible through government authorities. The message was not a slam at government, but rather homage to decentralized teams’ effectiveness. Gawande continues, “In other words, to handle this complex situation, they did not issue instructions. Conditions were too unpredictable and constantly changing. They worked on making sure people talked. Given common goals to do what they could to help and coordinate with one another, Walmart’s employees were able to fashion some extraordinary solutions.” Does “too unpredictable and constantly changing” sound like our world today? The lesson seems clear. Self-formed teams with decentralized, autonomous decision-making and trust will be needed to allow the agility and flexibility necessary to handle some of our most pressing problems.

Nature’s hurricanes are the personification of pressing problems. Maybe other kinds of hurricanes are, too.

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