Out of the Blue

Have you ever heard or used the phrase, “out of the blue?”  This is an English idiom which means totally unexpected or highly unusual.  It reportedly comes from the rare occurrence of lightning traveling many miles from a storm and hitting an object under completely blue skies.  It might be used like this, “I hadn’t heard from him for many months then, like a bolt out of the blue, he called me.”

Things in our business can come “out of the blue” as well.  We frequently experience those totally unexpected or highly unusual events.  We frequently tag these an “one offs” or “outliers”.  Examples of these could be that rogue regulatory investigator that is asking for things never requested before.  Or, that equipment that failed despite several layers of redundancy.  Or, that supplier that had performed perfectly for 20 years, then experienced a material issue.  When you look back over a year, I’ll bet that every plant or every department can name several events occurring that you might term “out of the blue.”  These moments are not always negative, also,  Sometimes these unexpected events can be positive.  However, we typically are more concerned with those that can impact our operation, our products, or out customers.

So, given that unexpected events can or will occur, what can we or should we do about it?  Can we actually prevent these?  Can we actually prepare in advance?  Below are outlined several actions we might consider to either help us identify those potential events or prepare when they do occur:

  1. Anticipate, Anticipate, Anticipate — Though “out of the blue” moments are completely unexpected, can we really anticipate them and how to handle them when they do occur?  The answer, of course, is both yes and no.  We cannot anticipate everything.  However, we can anticipate that things we did not expect could occur.  There are some tools we can use to help us identify as many of these possibilities as we can.  Failure Mode and Effect Analysis (FMEA) is a very good approach for soliciting potential unexpected events.  In this approach, you actually utilize a team to ask the question, “What could go wrong and what would happen if it did?”  By doing this systematically, you can identify potential impacts, plan contingencies and be ready when events do occur.
  2. Ask forward leaning questions, honestly — One of the questions I like to ask when I visit plants is, “If we would read that this site received an FDA Warning Letter six months from now, what would be the issues noted?”  When individuals answer this honestly, you can truly identify issues that might be addressable.  Consider now in your own group or own life, “What single item is most likely to create problems for us/me in the next six months if I do nothing now?”  This might stimulate action you can take.
  3. Prepare for the unexpected — Knowing that events can and will occur, what can we do to prepare now?  Have we applied all needed contingencies?  Do we have redundancies where needed?  Do we need additional safety stock, safety supplies, or hard-to-get parts?  Do we have adequately cross-trained help?  Do we know who will fill in if we have resource issues?  The International Boy Scouts motto is, “Be prepared.”  So, have you done what you need to do to prepare for that bolt “out of the blue?”
  4. Always remain cool, calm and professional — When an unexpected event does occur, how can we ensure that everyone involved operates productively and not in a panic?  When we, as leaders, remain cool, calm and professional, this promotes the same to our entire group.  When they see us panic, the tendency is for others to panic.  Remaining calm and acting professional is critical to control of the event.  And, remaining calm will help us make the best decisions to mitigate the issue when it does occur.
  5. Solicit input and participation of team members — No one should try to handle a negative “out of the blue” event alone.  Identify teammates and coworkers that can participate in handling the issue.  The input and ideas others can share might also identify actions that minimize the issue.  Again, this is true for personal “out of the blue” events, as well.  When you have family or friends that can come along side you to help you through big issues, it lessens the burden for you as an individual.
  6. Be prepared to help others — And, finally, we should be on the lookout for others that are experiencing a “big” issue in their lives.  Being ready to assist, whether in the workplace or homeplace, can often make the difference to that individual that is going through the challenge.

So, if/when you experience an “out of the blue” event, the key is to apply the preparation you have made, remain calm, and attack the problem as a team.  Many of these recommendations apply to such events outside work, as well.  Things can happen in a moment.

Here’s hoping all your “out of the blue” moments are happy ones,  Have a great day and always be on the lookout for how you might help a teammate deal with a challenging issue in their life.  Let’s make this an awesome day!

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