When it comes to being in business, it’s important to remember why you’re here. 99% of us are here to help our customers, which means making sure whatever you sell is ‘fit for purpose’. For example, if you buy a car, you expect you can drive it from point A to point B. If you buy a phone, you expect it will connect you with others when you want. If you buy a meal, it should be safe to eat. And when you buy drinking water, you should be able to drink it without getting sick.

Unfortunately, the Hastings City Council ‘sold’ contaminated water which wasn’t fit for purpose. So it’s no surprise the Councils’ residents became upset when they got ill because their water wasn’t safe to drink. Things then got worse when the Council was unable to identify what happened.

And because the Council couldn’t find the cause, they started adding chlorine to the water to kill the bug. Residents now have to boil chlorinated water just to be safe, and have been doing so months after this all started.

Businesses are looking for compensation for lost income. And residents will probably follow suit looking for compensation for lost income (where they had no sick leave. A political and media storm formed over this because NZ can hardly market itself as a developed country and 100% pure when it turns out our towns have contaminated water.

So what went wrong?

The Hastings City Council is a business just like every other business in NZ. It has customers. It has employees. It has suppliers. It has a purpose. Their goal may not be to make more profits, but it still has to make money to cover its costs just like every other business.

The Council made a mistake. Although I’m not convinced the Council’s mistake was in supplying contaminated water to its customers. Nor do I think the Council’s mistake was in how they responded once they found out its residents were getting sick from its water.

I believe the mistakes the Council made were:

  • failing to appreciate the consequences of their water supply failing;
  • not looking for the areas of greatest risk of failure in the water supply system
  • not having the appropriate monitoring processes and systems in place to ensure the water was safe; and
  • not having proper plans in place when (not if) the system fails.

If the Council had done this, then they would have responded much quicker.

It’s all about understanding your risks of any critical sources of failure

When I look at any business, one of the things I look for is where the risks are? I am interested in knowing if there is anything that if it were to go wrong, it would result in a disaster. The bigger the possible catastrophe, the more checks and balances needed to ensure it doesn’t happen. Or, you look for alternatives that aren’t so risky or disastrous if they go wrong.

Avoiding disastrous problems takes more than investing in the best systems and tools. It requires knowing your weaknesses, being committed to proven working principles and high standards, having defined accountabilities, and a keen examination of possible sources of failure.

Let’s consider the aviation industry. Airlines do not have the luxury of learning from their mistakes. Within its technical operations, the interaction of systems, subsystems, human operators, and the external environment gives rise to changes that must be corrected before they can lead to disastrous problems.

I will agree that making a mistake when supplying drinking water may not be as disastrous as making a mistake when flying an aeroplane. But things change quickly if people start dying because of contaminated water running through your pipes in a first world country.

What could the Council have done better?

I think it’s safe to assume the Hastings City Council did not understand their weaknesses when supplying water to its residents. And because the water supply became contaminated, they also did not do a good enough job examining the water supply for sources of failure before they happened. Had they done so then two things would have been obvious:

  1. They would have known what went wrong and where it went wrong; and
  2. The problem would have corrected much quicker than it is currently taking.

Now we don’t know all the facts (yet), and we don’t know what went wrong (yet). But it doesn’t matter if the water supply was contaminated due to another business, an act of nature, or something else (accidental or not). The Council should have appreciated the impact on its residents, businesses and NZ if its water supply became contaminated, and acted accordingly.

Knowing the risks should have resulted in:

  • understanding every link in the chain that results in water getting to a home;
  • knowing where the greatest areas of risk are;
  • having the right systems/processes/people in place to watch those risks; and
  • having ‘fail-safes’ in place should the worst happen.

All which would be evident right now if they had been in place.

We, as business owners, can all learn from this

If you have potential critical point(s) of failure (i.e. suppliers, systems/processes that if they failed then something bad would happen) then you need to know:

  • what your potential critical point(s) of failure are;
  • how they could go wrong;
  • the impact on everyone if something does go wrong;
  • what things you can do to avoid whatever could go wrong;
  • what you will do about it if it does go wrong; and

This list must be constantly rechecked to make sure nothing changes you aren’t aware of.

How much you spend on the necessary systems/processes/people will depend on how important it is that nothing goes wrong. Get it right and no one will have anything to worry about. Get it wrong and … well just look at what’s happened so far with the Hastings City Council. I think you get the idea.

And just to be clear, this isn’t about checking every possible point of failure – just the ones that are ‘critical’. So that if they go wrong, the impact on other people would be less.

What you should do now

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