Nearly every company with a supply chain experienced some sort of unexpected interruption in 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic spread worldwide. While COVID-19 may have been the first widespread disruptive event to span the globe, it certainly wasn’t the first significant event to upend warehousing, distribution and transportation somewhere. Disruptions happen all the time, and virtually every day.

Regionally, an earthquake, hurricane, tornado, fire, flood or other extreme event can have a significant impact on an organization’s ability to conduct business as usual. Labor strikes, tariff and trade agreement disputes, shipping obstructions, fuel shortages and other events can likewise hinder the routine flow of goods. Or — hyper-locally within your own organization — the loss of a key, customer-facing staffer due to a medical issue, a promotion, or voluntary (or involuntary) separation from your company can prompt confusion or even turmoil within existing operations.

Fortunately, there are several steps that can be taken now to mitigate the potential risks and negative impacts such circumstances may trigger in your company. While it’s a cliché, the best defense truly is a good offense. To address cases such as these, develop business contingency plans that can help your facilities and your leadership respond calmly, in a prescribed, step-by-step way to maintain continuous service should the unexpected occur.

1. Plan for Facility Continuity. First and foremost, should a disaster or accident impact one of your distribution centers or other facilities, it’s important to have emergency action plans in place that you regularly train against to ensure your people are safe. Once you’ve established how personnel will be accounted for, then it’s time to turn to your operations. As part of your facility continuity planning, an owner should have accurate and updated backup copies of as-built documents.

These documents include the drawings of the building and all its internal material handling, automation, mechanical, electrical, HVAC, structural and other key components. With copies of these stored safely (and potentially off-site or electronically in the Cloud), it will be possible to rebuild and recover more quickly from a disaster. Each facility operated by your company should have its own set of these documents, as each building is likely to have its own unique functions, systems, and layouts.

2. Assign a Crisis Team. Assign responsibility to a group of individuals who are authorized to develop, review and implement emergency action plans and other contingency plans should an unforeseen event occur. This team should include at least one representative from each department and every level of management, including floor-level associates, to ensure adequate coverage of your entire operation.

Together, this team should create new or evaluate existing plans for each level of operations that address potential risks and threats to business continuity. Areas for consideration include inventory, storage, procurement, information technology systems, customers, vendors, supplies, transportation, security, and more.

3. Ensure Customer Relationships. If I’m doing my job as President correctly, and I get hit by a bus tomorrow, then our organization won’t miss a beat. That’s because my role is largely behind the scenes (often thinking about issues such as the topic of this post). However, losing an employee to illness, separation or other unfortunate turn of events can be detrimental to a company in terms of customer relationship continuity.

That’s why, when we talk about succession planning, we don’t look at our top leadership roles. Instead, we focus on our project managers, engineers, site administrators and other team members upon whom our customers have the most reliance. We’ve recently taken a new organizational approach, structuring our departments as a matrix to create significant redundancy across customers and projects. By eliminating silos and applying cross-functional teams, we can minimize the impact of a staff change to a customer’s project while preserving the integrity of the relationship.

4. Revisit and Re-evaluate Plans. As boxer Mike Tyson has been famously quoted, “Everyone has a plan ‘till they get punched in the mouth.” To paraphrase Iron Mike, not every plan you have in place will work perfectly. Nor will every plan be able to address every possible risk. That’s why it’s important to continually revisit and re-assess the plans both before the unexpected occurs and afterwards.

Routinely evaluating existing strategies allows your leadership and crisis team to make updates that keep the steps fresh and relevant to current operations, applications, processes, software and equipment. Further, scheduling a discussion post-event allows the crisis team to solicit and share feedback from all employees about what parts of the plan worked well, what didn’t work so well, and how to improve the response plan for the next unanticipated disruption.

Finally, whether your operation has plans in place for some or all of these different types of possible disruptive events or not, tackling this type of risk mitigation project can admittedly seem overwhelming. Change is never easy. Neither is taking time away from the everyday operational tasks that focus on serving your customers to plan your response for events that may rarely (or never, if you’re lucky) occur. That’s why I don’t recommend attempting to dive into business continuity planning all at once.

Rather, it’s important to ease into this process by first prioritizing what incidents could be most detrimental to your operations. Assign a crisis team, put something on paper and revisit it in six months. This is the type of project that is never finished — and certainly never perfect. But investing some time into preparing for the unexpected will go a long way toward helping your operations recover more quickly should a disaster arrive at your doorstep.

Want to learn more about the types of solutions DCS can implement in your operation that improve worker safety? Connect with us.


Matt Ferguson - President for Designed Conveyor Systems for e-Commerce Warehouse, Warehouse Automation, and Supply Chain ConsultantsMatt Ferguson, President,

Matt Ferguson serves as the President of Designed Conveyor Systems and leads the company with his 15+ years of industrial automation experience and five years in material handling. Matt received his Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering from Clemson University and began his career as an electrical and controls engineer for a systems integrator specializing in material handling and process automation. He has since grown through progressive roles within system integration, including project management, sales, and leadership. Outside of the office, you can find him spending time with his wife and six children.