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Paul Naysmith

Quality Insider

How Do I Prepare for a Major Quality Failure?

The story of Rick Rescorla, a modern hero

Published: Wednesday, October 16, 2013 - 09:42

“If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs,” Rudyard Kipling begins in “If,” his beautifully written poem for his son. It’s a poem of advice and guidance for becoming a well-rounded adult, and dealing with the crises that life will throw at you. Kipling’s son John went on to proudly serve his country and gave his life to save the men around him in the extremes of battle.

The recent anniversary of the fateful day of September 11, 2001, introduced me to a new tale of incredible human achievement, although I had to wait 12 years to learn about it. Given that history presents itself as a continuous cycle of repeated heroic actions, Rick Rescorla’s story is quite simply, well, awesome.

The terrorist attack on New York’s twin towers still resonates with many, and on this very somber anniversary, media outlets continue to show documentaries about the event. During the last eight years, I’ve always shied away from TV at this time because I found I had a personal limit to seeing the devastation, repeatedly from differing angles, and knowing how many lives have been lost.

However, this year as I was indulging in my favorite hobby—channel hopping—I landed on a documentary station sharing the story of Rescorla and how he saved the lives of thousands of Morgan Stanley employees in the World Trade Center. It was a wonderful documentary, celebrating this man’s achievements rather than focusing on the horrors of a terrorist attack.

This was the first time I’d heard his tale, about a humble man who served in the military of his adopted country, and the amazing things he did to protect the souls under his responsibility. Rescorla is credited with saving 2,500 employees, an incredible, superhuman feat, and the documentary went to great lengths to explain this, through interviews of those employees.

His relationship with Morgan Stanley started when he was hired as a security advisor after a terrorist attack during the early 1990s in the same World Trade Center tower. Rescorla spent time analyzing the problems that occurred during that event. With his single-minded passion, he brought about a change in the culture at Morgan Stanley, along with changes in the physical conditions at the tower. His persistence with senior management and his personal style led to people participating in evacuation drills, which were conducted quarterly. The employees he trained were so conditioned to the correct response that when the plane hit on September 11, a few floors above, they all stood up and made for the exits.

Let’s consider his approach and what we can learn as quality professionals from his successes.

I have worked in a variety of dangerous industries for my entire working career. The company where I held my first job could never go a single month without a safety incident occurring. Although a significant fire at the plant would have been a major issue, during the many years I worked there, I don’t recall ever participating in any sort of drill for evacuating to safety.

Hang on a minute, I can hear you thinking. Shouldn’t this be an article about quality tools or techniques? Well, I think that the safety of others has a direct correlation to the quality of life. But let’s look past our assumption that “drills” are for safety only. Can we see an opportunity for an emergency-response drill for a “quality” failure? Is there something we can learn from Rescorla that applies to our industry?

Here’s a scenario that we would classify as a quality emergency: We have a substandard product that has escaped our controls and is now damaging our company’s reputation through global media channels. How should we react? What should we do?

You might be thinking that you work for a world-class company, which has the highest level of quality assurance as well as the necessary controls to prevent failure, so this scenario would never happen. Really? I’m sure the executives at Toyota may have thought the same before the “accelerator issue” during the late 2000s.

So where do we start? As Rescorla started: He thought about what could potentially happen and how to mitigate or react to the situation. He presented his findings to senior management, and received the buy-in and support necessary to take it to the next stage. He then prepared the key stakeholders through training and drills. He assessed the effectiveness of the training, people’s reactions, the drills, the infrastructure, and the overall success of his plan. He then took the lessons learned from this and did it all again, making improvements each time.

Does Rescorla’s approach sound familiar? It’s the plan-do-check-act (PDCA) cycle. This familiar quality tool we use for continuous improvement was applied to anticipate a disaster-emergency-catastrophe situation. This is how anyone can prepare for a major quality failure or safety event. Apart from the process, I’m sure Rescorla used his passion, drive, vision, and tremendous influence to get what he ultimately achieved. Knowing this, we can also use these tools to drive a change. However, as with most changes, we must start at the top of the business. Without the support from the senior executives of Morgan Stanley, Rescorla would not have been as successful as he was on the day the thousands of employees had practiced for. His persistence, personable approach, and actions helped when others were stunned to at a standstill. He kept his head, as Kipling recommended in his poem.

Along with using PDCA and influencing senior management, another approach of Rescorla’s that I liked was practice, practice, and more practice. This is a great quality technique and sometimes underused in our field. And without practice, any new skill or task that is used infrequently can’t be mastered or become an ingrained step in a process.

Consider what it would take to plan and create a practice session for a major quality failure. I would recommend making it realistic, as close to the real deal as possible. The wonderful thing about practicing is that it will condition people, hardwiring thoughts or actions into their brains so that when the worst happens, they will be able to respond without hesitation or anxiety. The right actions will spontaneously happen.

I think about quality so often that I see learning opportunities and possible applications everywhere, and I see it particularly in other people’s stories. Rick Rescorla’s story ended that day in 2001. He gave his life honorably to save others, selflessly running toward danger as the walls were crumbling around him. His bravery is celebrated in that documentary, at the memorial at “Ground Zero,” and at the website rickrescorla.com.

If you like Kipling’s poem (see link at the top of this column), I recommend taking a moment to review his wisdom from a quality manager’s perspective.


About The Author

Paul Naysmith’s picture

Paul Naysmith

Paul Naysmith is the author of Business Management Tips From an Improvement Ninja and Business Management Tips From a Quality Punk. He’s also a Fellow and Chartered Quality Professional with the UK’s Chartered Quality Institute (CQI), and an honorary member of the South African Quality Institute (SAQI). Connect with him at www.paulnaysmith.com, or follow him on twitter @PNaysmith.

Those who have read Paul’s columns might be wondering why they haven’t heard from him in a while. After his stint working in the United States, he moved back to his homeland of Scotland, where he quickly found a new career in the medical-device industry; became a dad to his first child, Florence; and decided to restore a classic car back to its roadworthy glory. With the help of his current employer, he’s also started the first-of-its-kind quality apprenticeship scheme, which he hopes will become a pipeline for future improvement ninjas and quality punks.


Kipling wrote, his son read

Rescorla was very good in his work, his principals very good at supporting him. I wonder that we - modern, reason-driven quality professionals - should still be blinded by heroism myths. A hero is not one who leads masses, is one who finds himself in front of the masses who rush behind him, instead. We should stop to recount stories of supermen, superleaders, and look more to reality: for the benefit of a safe and secure quality.