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Lessons Learned: Flint, Michigan

By Denise Harrison, Senior Consultant

Strategic Planning Expert Denise Harrison

Strategic Planning Expert
Denise Harrison

How do you anticipate unexpected outcomes from good ideas?  Flint, Michigan under financial duress made many decisions to improve its financial condition.   One decision was to change its water source from Detroit Water Sewerage Department (DWSD) to an alternative, cheaper source.  The three year transition plan was put in place.  What happened?

  • DWSD stopped selling water to Flint before the pipeline was complete to the alternative source
  • Flint chose to use the Flint River as an interim measure
  • Flint chose not to put in an additive to prevent the corrosion of pipes costing about $100.00 a day, even though it was federally mandated
  • Immediately people noticed that the water was discolored, smelly and had a funny taste
  • Even when people raised red flags about high lead levels, warning signs were ignored
  • After finally owning up to the problem, the cost is estimated to be about $100 million to fix, and the negative damage to the health of Flint residents will be long reaching

How could we shoot ourselves in the foot?

Often good ideas have potential negative outcomes, but these outcomes can be mitigated if they are anticipated up front or caught quickly as warning signs develop.  This risk mitigation assessment is important if you want to really benefit from the good idea, rather than getting caught up in the unexpected consequences as Flint did.  What could Flint have done?

  • First, assessed whether or not DWSD would cut the water supply before the infrastructure for the alternative source was complete. Three years is a long time, so having a plan B developed as an interim measure would allow a switch to be made with some forethought rather than as a last minute stopgap measure.
  • When switching to the Flint River source, taking time to truly understand the implications.
  • Comply with federally mandated standards – use the additive!
  • When early warning signs developed, hire an impartial third party firm to truly assess the damage and fix it quickly.

Sadly, we know that none of this occurred.  When you develop a strategic plan with good ideas, be sure to recognize the human tendency to view the ideas with rose-colored glasses and engage in wishful thinking.  Force yourselves to envision and discuss possible negative outcomes and, if you can, mitigate the risk upfront.  Also identify early warning signs of what might indicate a problem and take the necessary actions to insure that you do not have the negative consequences the problems might cause.  There are often unknowns with good ideas, but a proactive approach to resolving problems will allow you to capitalize on the good idea, without bearing the brunt of unexpected outcomes.  Like Flint, you just put the additive in, understand you may not have as much financial benefit as anticipated, and move on.  Sacrificing public health and safety due to financial constraints will hurt Flint and the decision-making leaders far into the future.

If you have questions about how to make your strategic planning process more robust please email Denise Harrison at harrison@cssp.com.

If you are interested in taking your strategic planning to the next level, please listen to our webinar:  Why Isn’t My Strategic Plan Working or contact Denise Harrison; 910-763-5194, harrison@cssp.com .

Denise Harrison is a senior consultant for the Center for Simplified Strategic Planning, Inc.  She can be reached at  harrison@cssp.com.

© Copyright 2016 by Center for Simplified Strategic Planning, Inc., Ann Arbor, MI — Reprint permission granted with full attribution.