I recently returned from the Philippines where I received an award at my undergraduate alma mater’s alumni homecoming, delivered a faculty lecture about engaged learning, and presented a paper about smarter cities at an international conference on urban planning.

imagesCAB252BA Typhoon 2

Devastation from Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda
in the Philippines

Little did I know that my brief visit to the Philippines would be eventful.  Simultaneous with our arrival in the Philippines was the landfall of Super Typhoon Haiyan (referred to as Yolanda in the Philippines), which destroyed 494,611 houses, affected 9.8 million Filipinos (including 3 million displaced residents), and resulted in the loss of 3,637 lives thus far.[i]  Haiyan/Yolanda cut a path that deviated from most Philippine typhoons and was unexpected by the 51 cities and 471 municipalities in 41 provinces[ii] that encountered  its fury.

Ongoing crisis and relief efforts from around the world are providing critical services.

Ongoing crisis and relief efforts from around the world are providing critical services.

Thanks to international media, many images of this catastrophe have been transmitted to the homes of millions around the world, who watched the horrific destruction.  It is not my intention to repeat here what has been reported.  If you have not yet done so, I invite you to contribute to the relief efforts on the Woodbury University website http://communication.woodbury.edu/philippines-typhoon-victims/.

The world has dealt with natural disasters since the beginning of time.  Whether it was the Great Flood that befell Noah and his contemporaries (Genesis 6-9), Hurricane Katrina, or Super Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda, the generic nature of a catastrophe exhibits certain similarities.   Although there is widespread agreement that natural disasters are beyond the control of human decision makers, there is also universal consensus that their impact can be managed.  For example, Noah had a plan to build an ark and activated it to the ridicule of his own contemporaries.  In his 1993 book on crisis management, Professor Ian I. Mitroff suggested that there are five distinct phases in managing a large-scale crisis:  signal detection, preparation and prevention, damage containment, short- and long-term recovery, and examination of critical lessons learned.[iii]  The current Haiyan/Yolanda operations are currently in the third phase—damage containment—with the United Nations Humanitarian Action Plan for the Philippines requesting $301 million to address humanitarian needs among the affected populations.

Disaster preparation and evacuation plans spared lives.

Disaster preparation and evacuation plans spared lives.

When large-scale disasters occur, there are at least two alternative human responses.  The first is to look for causes in order to assign praise or blame.  In catastrophic events of the magnitude of Haiyan/Yolanda, it is extremely difficult to determine a single cause, which leads to uncertainty, speculation, and the tendency to scapegoat.  The second type of response is to focus on the future so that similar events can be prevented.  In the case of the aftermath of Super Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda, there has been widespread clamor to focus on the positive relief efforts.  These two human responses, however, should not be mutually exclusive, and both responses should be part of the public discourse.  If we do not understand why events occurred as they did, then how can we learn from them?  It is instructive at this point to quote Henry Petroski who wrote:  “Yet no disaster need be repeated, for by talking and writing about the mistakes that escape us, we learn from them, and by learning from them we can obviate their recurrence.”  (To Engineer is Human, 1985, p. 227).[iv]

In this case, the unexpected, calamitous “black swan” event was a typhoon. But what could a natural disaster possibly have to do with building excellence in organizations?  One of my favorite questions in the Baldrige Award Criteria for Performance Excellence asks how the organization ensures that it is prepared for disasters or emergencies to address continuity of operations  and recovery.  Another favorite Baldrige Criteria question asks how the organization identifies potential blind spots in its strategic planning process and information.  A blind spot is any gap in knowledge or strategic intelligence that leads to false assumptions and misguided strategic and operational plans.  In the case of the Philippines, governments and businesses know typhoons are endemic to the region’s weather patterns.  To an outsider, it is perplexing that the country’s disaster preparedness action plan was not implemented consistently.  While the devastation has been about the same (i.e., near total) in the affected areas, the number of casualties differed and is related to the extent to which full evacuation of residents—a key component of the disaster plan— has taken place.

The same is true for most businesses, organizations or personal brands.  There were those who predicted the “black swan” financial meltdown, but did not take dynamic action to prevent it.  Businesses—large and small—encounter renegade CEOs, employees, supplier disruptions, and trade disputes.  The fact is, we cannot predict the unpredictable, as our friends in the Philippines experienced.  One of the biggest lessons we can learn from natural disasters is that they happen. This, alone, should compel us to action. Does your organization have a process for avoiding predictable blunders in strategy or any other aspect of its operations? Excellent organizations have the agility—a capacity for rapid change and flexibility in operations—to respond to such surprises in a timely manner. Ultimately, whether natural or of the corporate type, disasters affect people.

It would not be appropriate for me at this time to comment on the critical lessons learned from Super Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda.  With damage containment still ongoing and the recovery phase still in the conceptualization phase, we’re simply not there yet.  You may rest assured that I am updating my notebook for a future blog on lessons learned.

What is your favorite example of a strategic plan that failed due to an avoidable blind spot?

I am Woodbury University President, Dr. Luis Calingo.  Thank you for letting me share Reflections on Excellence.


[i]U.S. Agency for International Development, Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda Fact Sheet #6, 16 November 2013.  http://www.usaid.gov/haiyan/fy14/fs06

[ii]Solita Collas-Monsod, “Get Real:  Blame Game,” Philippine Daily Inquirer, 16 November 2013.  http://opinion.inquirer.net/65449/blame-game

[iii]Ian I. Mitroff and Christine M. Pearson, Crisis Management:  A Diagnostic Approach to Improving Your Organization’s Crisis-Preparedness (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1993).

[iv]Henry Petroski, To Engineer is Human (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985).

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Categories: News
  • Obet Calingo

    Just to start the ball rolling, we are riding on the premise that before the typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines, there is already a professional organization, ready to address whatever calamity(ies), the country will encounter. There is this National Disaster Risk Reduction Management Committee (NDRRMC). I am not sure if I get it right.

    Now the first question in my mind is this; Is NDRRMC an organization capable enough to run a large scale operation; starting from the national government, down to the level of the remotest barangay in the country – from the point of view of management know-how and skills of personnel. Are the key officers, with the right background and perhaps years of experience in the tasks they are assigned at? Have they been thoroughly screened, by equally competent interviewers, before they were taken in? Similar to what a blue chip corporation would do in their recruitment process, for managerial and even non- managerial positions. Or are they products of political power blocks, seeking reward for their efforts?

    The second question in my mind is this: Does NDRRMC have the necessary infrastructure and logistics, to get things done; such as satellite phones, vehicles, relocation sites (in case of evacuation), etc., across the country and in all islands, with the different provinces, municipalities and cities, not to mention barangays, taken into account?

    It seems that to me, that the country is not prepare yet to handle and implement an excellent national preparedness action plan. And it was clear during the recent onslaught of super typhoon Yolanda in the country. For two reasons: 1) The country does not have a team of highly qualified management staff and pool of personnel to address a big calamity, if and when it strikes a large area. 2) The country still lacks the infrastructure and sophistication in telecommunication, necessary in implementing quick response when needed.

    I believe what the country needs at the moment, is a professional and independent organization, equipped with the necessary material resources, management skills and know-how, and readily available trained personnel, all over the country.

    • LuisCalingo

      Thank you for your comment.

      The Philippine Government, indeed, has a national disaster preparedness plan and it is coordinated by an interagency National Disaster Risk Reduction Management Committee (NDRRMC). On November 6, two days before Yolanda/Haiyan’s landfall, NDRRMC issued its first advisory or situation report. Out of curiosity, I read that report:

      At the risk of armchair theorizing, the problem appears to be in the breakdown of that system by way of its inconsistent implementation. Much of the NDRRMC advisory was about what the national government agencies would do; only 4 lines in that 9-page document spoke about the local government unit when, on the ground, it is the local government unit that implements the plans. As early as two days before the super typhoon arrived, some island residents were already evaluated totally to secure places. The U.N. Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) cited the island town of San Francisco, Cebu Province, as a role-model example. Similarly, the ABS-CBN News reported a similar evacuation occurred in the small island of Manicani in Guiuan, Eastern Samar Province. Out of its 1,000 residents, there was only one casualty. Compare this with the situation in Tacloban City, Leyte, where the city leaders and much of the local populace seem to have taken for granted the warnings. In addition to this, the unprecedented magnitude of the super typhoon could not have been anticipated; there is a move among scientists to create a Category 6 hurricane because Yolanda/Haiyan is in a class by itself.

      For an interesting perspective on the role of local vs. national government in Yolanda/Haiyan, check out:

  • LuisCalingo

    My former CSU colleague Dolores Basilio offered a compelling insight on LinkedIn
    that I would like to share…

    “I studied emergency management during my master’s program just prior to Katrina striking American land, and in the midst my studies examined emergency preparation (or lack of) in Pakistan after devastating floods. Emergency management is an ongoing improvement opportunity, with many lessons learned, and hopefully changes some successes, too. It is a shame that only after a devastating event do individuals and agencies make critical corrections, instead of taking best practices of others and apply.”

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