Recovering From a Major Disaster – The Management Challenge

Table of Contents


The beginning of the year 2020 had an outlook for continued growth with business operating as normal. In March, the world literally changed. The impact of a substantial increase in deaths in Italy generated concern throughout the world. This unknown coronavirus was unlike anything that had happened in the world for over 100 years. There was the Swine Flu in 2009 that cost at least 150,000 lives worldwide. [1] Seasonal Flu causes over 250,000 deaths each year. [2] SARS was recognized in late 2002 as a potentially significant threat and killed 800 people. HIV/AIDS emerged in the 1980s and has caused 30 million deaths over roughly 40 years. What was different between the Swine Flu in 2009–2010 and COVID-19 is that the transmission of COVID-19 was so immediate. Prior to the COVID-19 emergence, an article was published in September 2019, in which there were projections of a virus being able to cause 80 million deaths worldwide in two days from a yet undetected novel flu-like illness [3][4].

When the Coronavirus (COVID-19) was recognized as a potential worldwide threat, the reaction by governments across the world was unprecedented. Never before has there been a worldwide shutdown of businesses. This shutdown happened within a two-week period across the entire globe. The resulting shelter-in-place directives created major problems in almost every country in the world. By forcing businesses to an immediate closedown, havoc was created. The only operations that were permitted to continue were those that were defined as necessary for the health and well-being of the community. Any business considered “noncritical” was required to shut down.

The consequences were that businesses were broken into two categories, critical and not critical. Essential services (such as emergency room workers, police, fire, and grocery stores) were classified as critical and remained open. Businesses considered noncritical had the physical locations closed. Some businesses, information-based workers are an example, were able to allow employees to work remotely and, therefore, business continued. These workers are mostly salaried. Many of these businesses that were closed employed a large number of hourly workers. The workers in this latter category witnessed the termination of any income. This was partially alleviated by governments providing subsidies for the workers who were unemployed. The shelter-in-place directives changed many areas of daily living by closing down after-hour activities. For essential activities, there was a six-foot safe distance specified for interaction among people. Now is the time for a phased reopening of the closed businesses

Beginning again

How does one begin again? It is dangerous to assume that doors will open, and everyone will return to their assigned position and continue to work with the same level of intensity as previously. There are new COVID-19-inspired safety measures that will be in place before anyone can return to work. These will vary from company to company and will not be covered in this article since it would be company-specific, but without uncertainty, these safety-related changes will cost money. These measures are not in the annual budget. Re-evaluation of funding allocation may impact marketing, research and development, and other areas of a company.

This reopening of businesses has been called a New Restart. This assumes that things will come back slowly but everything will remain basically the same. There will be challenges but these can be quickly overcome. Some reports have suggested that we will be entering a period of New Realignment, where the structure of the business model changes to reflect the learning of the COVID-19 shutdown. While businesses have been in a shutdown mode, there are unfilled orders and unkept promises. It is possible that many businesses will need a Fast Restart. Whatever the path chosen, there will be inherent challenges to bring business back to “normal.” This article will focus on the businesses’ production and engineering efforts. R&D situations will be handled slightly differently and are the planned topic of a different paper.


The challenges that occur upon the reopening of the business will include people issues, inventory, supply chain, customer base, finding new sources of materials, and financial aspects. Additional pressure will be applied to management due to the desire to address each of these items both immediately and simultaneously.

Question of Personnel

Upon restarting, after having been inoperable for several months, the first question is, are there still workers? For lower-paid workers, various emergency measures that have been implemented may make the “return to work” option unattractive. Consequently, the less-skilled workforce may be in short supply at the initial business opening. The next question is whether the pre-existing workforce is still available to return to their previous jobs. Some workers may have taken other opportunities, could be ill, could have decided to retire, or possibly are no longer able to work. Once the availability of people has been determined, the next step is to decide on which skills are still missing. In some cases, the full job function may not be adequately defined in a manner that covers the complete range of responsibilities. This definition of responsibilities is required to determine appropriate replacement personnel, and in many cases, the requirements will have to be developed.

Delivery Schedule

When the business restarts, there will be a number of orders that have an overdue delivery date. It is necessary to check with these customers to ensure that the delivery is still required, and a new delivery date needs to be determined. The customers who have orders for future delivery, likewise, need to be contacted to evaluate their current needs and the timing of their deliveries. There also needs to be an effort to reconnect with the entire customer base to inform them that the company is still in business and will be ramping up production in order to deliver the normal items.

Based on the analysis of current and potential future orders, it is necessary to evaluate the materials, supplies, and parts required to produce the required output. There will probably be issues in the supply chain where businesses are just starting up, which are about to start up, or have failed and will not start up. This requires additional time on the part of management to reconstruct a solid supply chain so that future orders can be delivered as promised. Developing new sources for parts of the supply chain requires evaluating suppliers, and determining their capability of meeting the desired quantity, specifications, and delivery schedule. While doing this, there is a need to obtain funds to keep the organization alive and to pay the workers until the cash flow resumes. Another issue, as mentioned previously, is that these challenges need to be addressed simultaneously.

Gen. Dwight Eisenhower once stated plans are worthless, planning is everything. With this unique situation of shutdown, any plans that had existed could not have conceived of all the issues that have arisen over the last few months. The best time to start developing plans (planning for the future) is well before the organizations are allowed to open. Since that probably did not happen in most organizations, it is necessary to move forward as quickly as possible—a Fast Restart. This is one of the times that for companies of any size reaching out to external sources becomes a necessity. Whether that source is a trusted banker, a legal advisor, or an external consultant, the organizational manager needs to have somewhere and someone to be able to evaluate proposed actions. One of the reasons mistakes are made is due to increased pressure for any situation. Mistakes in the reopening could prove to be disastrous, which is why additional resources are suggested.


The beginning again or restart provides an opportunity to evaluate an organization’s entire business model. It is an opportunity to look at set practices and evaluate if processes, communication, and interactions can be improved. This requires having personnel who were involved in each and every operation providing insight into the overall functioning of any particular segment of the company’s operation, including all departments from management to business development to research to manufacturing and delivery.

The coming restart of businesses is unlike anything else we have seen before. For some companies or institutions, there may have been a shutdown for a couple of weeks due to various reasons. Other facilities may have scaled back production efforts over extended holiday periods like Christmas and New Year’s. Usually after any sort of “break,” resumption of normal processes requires checking out the equipment and continuing with the same processes as prior to the break.

To repeat, in 2020, the restart or the new realignment is not business as usual. Consideration needs to be given to the “restarting” of both employees (human capital) and equipment. Employees may need to review or practice processes and methods. Equipment, after sitting idle for an extended period of time, will need a thorough maintenance checkup. Environmental conditions can reduce operational efficiency in idle equipment and the possibility of physical warping of machine parts may also occur.

An additional consideration for any organization is the fact that not all of the workforce will need to be located as they were before. An example of this is Google, which has stated that its employees will be working from home for the remainder of 2020. There are companies that have developed floating offices based on a “hotel room model.” This model provides a fully equipped office space for use by multiple employees for short periods of time. For employees who do not require full-time presence, this approach provides them a place to work when on-site. The effect of this floating office space is that the organization needs less total space, which can result in reduced operational costs.

A significant opportunity exists to use the reset opportunity as a period to streamline the functional organization of a company. The opportunity to perform this level of assessment and potential modification has not existed in the past because almost any change had to be made with the current and continuous operation of the company in mind. Employees can be asked to provide ideas, thoughts, and suggestions for improvement within the company. This survey or “idea box” approach can be implemented even before a formal return to work is executed. For example, ask employees to think about what information or process change might make their job easier or more efficient. Use this time of isolation to brainstorm with employees and among departments for positive changes. Electronic communications provide a method for obtaining input from all employees.

As an example, consider a program manager leading a multidisciplinary team. The deliverable is a new product that requires all aspects of design, testing, manufacturing, etc. The program manager is also in touch with the current customer and with business development personnel. More than likely there is an established process to communicate customer changes, design modifications, procurement issues, and so on. Also, the business development department may be in the process of evaluating emerging, new customer or market requirements and opportunities. Although the established process may function fairly well, there usually exist improvements that can be made or times that various participants have said “I wish I had known that earlier, I could have….” Now is the time to survey all of the parties involved in this process if they have ideas for improvement. Granted, some ideas may be far-fetched, difficult, or expensive to implement but there may also be a simple suggestion that could save time and money. When the aspect of social distancing or a hybrid work environment, where not everyone is present in the same facility at the same time, is considered, there exists an opportunity to not only improve communication in this difficult work environment but also improve efficiency.

The opportunity exists for improvement and could be as simple as the implementation of uniform checklists, or communication standards in terms of timing, content, and distribution.

The magnitude of the changes that have occurred and will continue in businesses is substantial. However, opportunities exist to enhance and improve communication, information flow, and employee satisfaction and morale in new and exciting ways.


There are certain aspects of this reopening of businesses that must be addressed. Consideration of the existing workforce along with the replacement of missing skill sets needs to occur. The opportunity also exists to evaluate the corporate infrastructure and consider the potential for upgrades in both facilities and technology. Finally, the evaluation of existing operational parameters and improvement areas can be determined.


An organization cannot operate without a workforce. Coming out of the COVID-19 shutdown, personnel will have a number of new concerns that need to be addressed. There may also be new emotional aspects to the work environment. Employees may be fearful or anxious about nonwork-related situations. These circumstances need to be honestly and openly discussed and acknowledged. Aspects of productivity could also be affected. The concern of staying healthy and not being infected by the virus with the resulting loss of work time and pay could impact their work effort. Those who lost their job have had the issue of obtaining health insurance. These considerations will weigh heavily on their minds and have the potential to impact work performance.

From the organization’s viewpoint, there are two issues that need to be addressed. The first one is the level of skill of the returning workers. With breaks in employment and work assignments for periods of three months or more, there are subtleties the workers may have forgotten. If they are working on equipment a refresher course and/or retraining may be needed. The second issue is the retention of the existing workers. Loss of employees may be due to initial restart turmoil or the turmoil as organizations reopen. This reopening has the potential to create required increases in wages in order to retain highly skilled workers. The individual positions that have critical skill levels need to be evaluated and planning done on how to address shortages in that area before the actual shortages occur. As has been demonstrated by the current situation, plans could not have been made for the scale and the speed of this worldwide disaster. Documentation of lessons learned may be of use to the organization, now and in the future.


As mentioned above, there is the potential for significant improvements in the infrastructure. There are two segments that can contribute to the initial evaluation of the existing infrastructure. First is the review and consideration regarding potential changes to increased demand and tight delivery schedules. This may apply to any product currently produced. Second, an evaluation of the overall operation for various elements that have the potential for modernization or efficiency improvements.

Taking advantage of these possible improvements will require an increase in overall communication networks and improved processes as well as an understanding of various approaches and critical factors among departments. The bottom-line requirement in this situation is to welcome and encourage a new level of listening and speaking. This effort, the second segment, can result in significant improvement in company-wide operational procedures, which can affect departments as varied as business development, assembly, and quality assurance.

The capabilities of the various items used to develop and produce products need to be validated. This includes a recalibration of all items that have precision requirements. While the valuation of existing tools’ calibration is being conducted, this is the time to evaluate the capability of improving the operational procedures to increase the efficiency of the operation. It could be an ideal time to replace existing equipment if that equipment is capable of being delivered in a timely fashion.

The existing supply of material required for outstanding orders and long lead time items need to be addressed. With the abrupt shutdown that occurred, quite possibly delivery dates were missed both by suppliers and customers. One method that may prove useful is the “stoplight” approach. This approach can be applied to multiple aspects of any restart effort. For example, the list of all materials required to produce a product serves as a starting point. Each item is then assigned a rating of green, yellow, or red. Obviously, the “green” rated parts may be those that already exist in inventory. The “yellow” rated parts may be those that are relatively easy to procure perhaps locally or parts that have multiple suppliers. The “red” designated parts are those which for multiple reasons may be difficult to procure and require special attention. This approach can be applied to multiple aspects of an organization’s operations. These areas include parts procurement, assembly equipment or processes, customer interactions, and market changes. The benefit of applying the stoplight approach is that a high-level assessment is provided and portions that are “at risk” can be immediately and effectively addressed.

Interactions both vertically and horizontally are encouraged both inside and outside of the organization. Before the restart begins, supporting organizations should be contacted and discussions made about their capabilities, philosophy, and changes associated with restarting. This might be an appropriate time to evaluate alternative sources of materials and consider a dual supplier for each of the purchased items.

Restarting may be more challenging for smaller organizations. An organization’s restart does not ensure that it will be viable over the longer term. An additional consideration would be acquiring backup supplies and equipment for items that are older and heavily utilized. The other consideration is the workforce location in the future. With a portion of the existing workload being performed remotely, existing workers may desire to have at least a portion of their workweek designated as “remote efforts.” This requires an evaluation of the work function itself, the sensitivity of the material being handled, and the ability to secure communications.

This period of restart is an opportunity to evaluate the modernization potential of the organization. Any of the equipment that is now marginally performing needs to be considered for replacement. Tradeoffs regarding potential equipment enhancements, which include cost versus effectiveness and other factors, should be performed.

As is well known, achieving an increase in revenue can take many paths. These paths include aspects as obvious as increasing the price or expanding into new market segments. A corollary approach is to reduce the cost. Improving efficiency, better and thorough communication, and equipment modernization are clear avenues that can reduce the cost of a product for the company to produce.

The ability to consider inserting new technologies to replace the older existing ones is an opportunity to make the organization more competitive in several ways. First, new technologies such as the use of composite materials, nanotechnology for improved systems, three-dimensional manufacturing, and other emerging technologies can have a significant positive impact on the functionality of the product. Not only is reduced cost possible but an increase in customer base is often a benefit of enhanced functionality. Another, sometimes hidden aspect of changing technology or integrating new technology is a societal benefit that can lead to increased revenue. For example, creating a product that is biodegradable (where the current product is not) may attract new customers. Not only may this expand your customer base but the “public” may be willing to pay a higher price for a product that has that attribute over one that does not.

As mentioned above, modernization and improvements in equipment and processes is an approach that should also be considered as a means to reduce the cost. However, it must be acknowledged that any time new technologies, processes, materials, or equipment are introduced some portions of the existing skill set will need to be improved. This may require external courses or vendor-supplied courses in the existing work location.

As always, the pros and cons, cost versus benefits, of any new approaches need to be considered. However, when an effective and efficient process is followed for assessing and determining the pluses and minuses, significant positive change can occur. This time of “reset” is providing an opportunity to make those changes.

The operational requirements for the restart provide the most challenges and the most opportunities. The first and most important item to be addressed is obtaining sufficient funds to cover the period from the products being produced or services rendered until payment is received. The availability of funds will determine how rapidly the restart can occur. Timing of the restart is important because slower beginnings could result in the loss of key personnel. This also pushes out the start of the payment for services or products produced, hence, impacting the cash flow. The supply chain issues are critical, and any missing component of the supply chain must be replaced. Other organizations that have been through the same stoppage may have modified the volume and timing of goods and services. Another aspect for consideration is the change in the competitive arena. There will be competition for additional sales, which could actually reduce the revenue of a product or service.

With everyone going through a restart, at the same time, it is quite possible that there will be demands for faster delivery on smaller volumes. In a larger organization’s operational hierarchy, it may be possible to increase the efficiency of the operation by developing enhanced communications as mentioned previously. The last item, which is the most important, is the cash flow situation. It needs to be evaluated and continually monitored until the overall organization is back to a positive cash flow. A total of 80% of the small businesses that file for bankruptcy are profitable but die due to a lack of cash flow.


There are many lessons that have been or will be learned as the restart process is initiated. The key lesson will be having a methodology for planning to address unexpected situations. A period of shutdown, as just experienced, provides the opportunity to evaluate the critical technologies and critical skills required for the organization. Planning for a restart needs to happen during the beginning of a shutdown so that reopening permits a rapid and efficient start.

It is important to identify the people and areas that involve corporate knowledge. Lacking a historical perspective of what the organization has done in the past increases the potential for repeating mistakes. This also is an opportunity for modernization of equipment, improvement in communications among separate operations within the organization, evaluation of technology changes that can improve the organization’s operation, and development of the means to organize the planning for the next crisis.

This unanticipated business closure provides the ability to determine where the weaknesses are within the organization. Identifying weaknesses permits the development of redundancy where possible whether inside the organization or external to it. With the restart of businesses, the companies that are effective in restarting rapidly are offered the opportunity for an increase in growth, profitability, and sustainability of their business.

W. Trybula and D. Newberry, “Recovering From a Major Disaster—The Management Challenge,” in IEEE Engineering Management Review, vol. 48, no. 3, pp. 24-30, 1 third quarter, Sept. 2020, doi: 10.1109/EMR.2020.3006802.

[1] Seasonal Flu causes over 250,000 deaths each year. [2] SARS was recognized in late 2002 as a potentially significant threat and killed 800 people.

[2] SARS was recognized in late 2002 as a potentially significant threat and killed 800 people.

Prior to the COVID-19 emergence, an article was published in September 2019, in which there were projections of a virus being able to cause 80 million deaths worldwide in two days from a yet undetected novel flu-like illness [3], [4].

Share this article with a friend

Create an account to access this functionality.
Discover the advantages

Create an account to access this functionality.