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In the last two installments we discussed the “all-hands-on-deck” approach and the importance of all elements of society working together to address COVID-19, and the need to re-think how we can re-organize our response systems to better absorb these shocks in the future. It is clear that this is an unprecedented crisis and response, with the Government of Canada and Provincial Governments exercising more influence over the private sector since the Second World War.

The clear priority during the COVID-19 crisis is treating the infected, protecting those individuals who are not infected but are still at risk of contracting the virus furthering the spread, and observing public health warnings. Assigning blame and pointing out limitations at this stage is not useful. Where necessary, improved methods should be implemented in order to maximize effectiveness in real-time. However, as we transition back to normal life (or whatever the new normal will look like in the days to come) a detailed lessons learned process should be undertaken across all organizations and at all levels.

The lessons learned process is not just a polite version of the ‘blame game’. Lessons learned is not about comparing one organization’s response to another. Lessons learned is about identifying not only things that didn’t work as well as planned, but also about finding opportunities to improve upon things. This is important to ensure that organizations stop doing things that are not helpful, and also improving on areas that could be more helpful. This is an important point, as we have seen with the medical response and the supply chain. Doing one thing really well has not been the challenge with COVID-19: it has been doing a particular thing tens of thousands of times, and the challenges this presents for capacity.

The scale and scope of the lessons learned process will need to get buy in from governments, the private sector, and the voluntary sector in order to be comprehensive. This doesn’t mean having thousands of participants in one place, though a wide-angle analysis will be needed to see how all the parts worked together. It does mean having sector-by-sector lessons learned sessions to identify areas for improvement in each sector. These lessons should eventually be aggregated to provide a system-level, whole-of-society perspective for priority areas. This process will provide the basis for cross-organizational improvements and focus areas for where technology and IT systems can be implemented to streamline collaboration and response. This might include developing a new national standing capability to coordinate more whole-of-society information integrating organizations at the Federal level, corresponding organizations in the Provinces, large private sector firms and the voluntary sector. It might mean legislating some elements of information sharing on essential supply stockpiles, manufacturing capacity regulations, and designing public buildings for multiple purposes in the case of emergency. Legislation may be needed, but this is not a challenge that can be overcome through legislation alone. Addressing challenges at a systems level is essential to being better prepared for future threats.

For designing future IT systems, collecting data will be important. Process flow architectures can help identify procedural or communications exchange limits. The Japanese manufacturing sector pioneered the use of the Kaizen concept, viewing improvements to process by their impact on the overall operational efficiency. Factors analysis can also provide rich data sets for modellers to identify priorities areas.
Most importantly for whatever comes out of the lessons learned process is that lessons be implemented. Lessons learned are sometimes derisively referred to as ‘lessons observed’ because the organization does not take the necessary steps to drive change. If we simply observe the lessons from COVID-19 the next time there is a large crisis we will be no better prepared.

Finally, whatever the way forward ends up looking like, the social bonds between disparate organizations need to be fostered and solidified. This means 1) conferences and workshops to better understand how others operate, 2) joint exercises where plans are put to the test, 3) cross-training to build knowledge across organizations, 4) shared technology platforms where appropriate for real-time information sharing, and 5) above all normalizing the idea that government, industry and the voluntary sector will be collaborating for emergency response.

Formalizing the good collaboration we are seeing now during COVID-19 is essential to retaining the lessons learned from this crisis, building national resilience across all sectors, and to better protect the nation for future threats and crises.