Friday, January 22, 2016

Blizzard Watch, But No Snow Shovels

There is a blizzard watch in my local area. A blizzard is a rarity in southern Pennsylvania, though it’s something we know can hit on occasion, especially in January. I’ve seen more than a few signs that the area is not prepared. It’s businesses especially that concern me. Nearly all businesses should close on Saturday if the forecast is anywhere near accurate. If you believe the forecast, we could have one foot of snow on the ground before opening time on Saturday, with heavy snow continuing all day and into the next morning, and high winds for much of the day at the height of the storm. Some local stores have made contingency plans to close Saturday and Sunday morning. At others, it’s clear that the thought hasn’t yet crossed their minds. The obvious risk in asking workers to drive to work in a blizzard, or to invite customers to come out to a store, is that people could be stranded in their cars for 24 hours, or could become disoriented trying to walk the two blocks from home to work and risk dying from the cold.

The picture of a major winter storm had entered the forecast by Sunday, and some stores were sold out of snow shovels by Monday and were unable to restock. That’s a distribution system breakdown, or as one of my less technical friends put it, “just pathetic.” It is a lost profit opportunity for the retailers. At a human level it means some of my neighbors will suffer the indignity and inconvenience of trying to clear snow with a cardboard box.

The main thing this shows is that businesses are nowhere near the ideal of agility that there has been so much talk about for the last quarter century. To respond to changing circumstances with five days of advance warning does not require agility so much as paying attention. To put it another way, business leadership remains mostly a myth. Most so-called managers know how to relay information and repeat a routine, but wait for someone else to tell them how to adapt when circumstances dictate a change. If you’re in the affected region, make a note of the businesses that weren’t able to adapt to this major winter weather event. This kind of business won’t be around 10 or 20 years from now.