Pearl-HarborDecember 7, 2016 is the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on the Hawaiian Islands.  There are newspaper inserts and TV specials as well as countless articles and speeches retelling the stories and pointing out the lessons that were learned.  Usually, the lessons can be summed up as “we were asleep and that will never happen again.”

Except it has happened again and again – 9/11 and the Tet Offensive are just two of the more obvious examples.  And it will happen again and again because we are humans – being surprised is a very human trait.

So, let me take a different tack on lessons that can be learned from Pearl Harbor, 9/11, the Tet Offensive, Enron, and countless other disasters.

Lesson 1:  Crap happens.

It is so easy to assume that you have planned for every contingency, but we should have learned by now that Murphy was an optimist.  Something will always go wrong.  That automatic prescription refill will somehow fall through the cracks.  The ten-minute drive to your office will be fouled by a three-car accident.  Not very often, but enough that we should know that our plans serve primary to give God something to laugh about.

Lesson 2:  We assume that the bad stuff will not happen to us.

At Pearl Harbor the fear was sabotage, therefore, the planes were lined up wingtip to wingtip.  The Japanese couldn’t attack Pearl Harbor because it was too far.  But it wasn’t.

It’s this assumption that is one reason why planning usually doesn’t work for disasters.  We can’t imagine that the worst will happen.  If there’s a fire in the restaurant upstairs, the fire or water won’t reach our server room – but it does.

Lesson 3:  We focus on our little part and ignore the big picture.

All Ken Lay worried about was looking good on the next quarterly report – he never considered what would happen if his scheme was exposed.  Likewise, the powers that be in Washington, DC were concerned with their little fiefdoms to the point where the Army refused to use the Navy’s communication system to send a message to Hawaii, sending it via a commercial system so it arrived four hours after the attack started.

Lesson 4:  It takes a lot of mistakes for someone to die.

The list of mistakes at Pearl Harbor is long – No one even thinking that an attack could happen; ignoring radar reports of a large formation approaching the island; or even reports of sighting and sinking a miniature sub outside the harbor are some of the most obvious.  If even one of these had prompted someone to initiate an investigation, the result would have been vastly different.

Lesson 5:  Good can come out of disaster.

The loss of life was tragic, but the loss of ships, planes and material was relatively minor.  At Pearl Harbor, 18 ships were sunk or damaged and only 50 planes were capable of operations at the end of the day.  By putting the battleships out of commission, the Japanese did the United States a favor.  Plans before the war called for the battleships to steam to the western Pacific and confront the Imperial Japanese Fleet in deep water where any ship sunk was gone for good.  At Pearl, every battleship except the USS Utah and USS Arizona was salvaged and returned later in the war to fight.  The US Navy was also forced to rely on aircraft carriers and submarines which proved to be the ultimate instruments in defeating Japan.

Disasters have a way of eliminating the bloat and deadwood that accumulate in people and organizations and allow for new ideas and methods to be given a chance to demonstrate their possibilities.  The danger is that the ideas and methods that work become the new solution and set the stage for next disaster.

A physicist by trade, author by choice, a born teacher, a retired veteran, and an adamant problem solver, Frank has helped the White House, federal agencies, military offices, historical museums, manufacturers, and over 250 technology startups get stuff done, communicate effectively, and find practical solutions that work for them. In his spare time, he makes sawdust and watches Godzilla movies.