A Crisis Management Lesson From Violinist Gil Shaham And The San Francisco Symphony

Imagine the pressure of being a world-renowned soloist, on stage, in a packed, sold-out orchestra hall, and having your instrument break. Actually, for most of us, this wouldn’t be difficult to imagine at all. We are sole suppliers of highly technical products sold in high volumes. Every day, we either perform or. . .well, we PERFORM!

Imagine the pressure of being a world-renowned soloist, on stage, in a packed, sold-out orchestra hall, and having your instrument break. Actually, for most of us, this wouldn’t be difficult to imagine at all. We are sole suppliers of highly technical products sold in high volumes. Every day, we either perform or. . .well, we PERFORM!

I recently watched one of the classical music world’s most sought-after and highly acclaimed violinists, Gil Shaham, at Cleveland’s Severance Hall. He was performing a highly technical, 12-tone concerto with the touring San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. Mr. Shaham wasn’t just playing any violin. He was playing the 1699 “Countess Polignac” Stradivarius violin. About halfway through the second movement, the impossible happened—a string broke on the violinist’s instrument!

How the soloist, the conductor and the orchestra responded reminded me of the position many of us are in as sole suppliers to major manufacturers in these days of “lean” and “just-in-time” inventory. You can’t get much leaner than one instrument per performer, and you certainly can't get more “just-in-time” than a live performance.

How are we organized to deal with rare but debilitating events that can affect our ability to produce and ship products? Are our contingency plans robust enough to handle a situation where that one critical piece of equipment becomes temporarily unusable? And for how long? Some of today’s customers tell us that they get 100 percent on-time delivery from ordinary suppliers. That doesn’t leave much room for non-delivery because of a critical equipment failure or other showstopping events.

How do your production contingency plans compare with that of Gil Shaham and the San Francisco Symphony?

Two measures after the string broke—truly a showstopping event if there ever was one—Mr. Shaham exchanged violins with the senior violinist who then exchanged instruments with the next violinist. Mr. Shaham resumed his solo without missing a note, as the handoff occurred during a rest in the performance.

Interestingly, this happened while the conductor was looking at other sections of the orchestra. He turned back to find the soloist playing a different violin. While the soloist and orchestra played the challenging piece, one of the other violinists was replacing the string on the Stradivarius and quietly tuning the instrument. The handoff sequence was then reversed, with the soloist finishing the concerto with his own violin.

These handoffs were as seamless as in an Olympic relay race, and the music was played without missing a note or a beat. It was a case of critical spare parts—in this case, a violin string—being available when and where they were needed. Communication between all of the performers was quiet and tacit, but effective and real-time. The contingency plan ensured that the soloist and senior violinist had working instruments, allowing the performance to continue. Another part of the organization made the needed repairs on-time and on-site.

“The show must go on” is taken seriously by performers, but seldom does one have the privilege of seeing this motto put to the test. I was amazed and delighted to watch the team form and execute a plan on stage in mid-performance to ensure that the show would go on.

I was reminded of you, who every day must ensure that your own production for large manufacturers and OEMs goes on. It goes on despite equipment breakdowns, tool failures, power outages and even foolish customer mandates.

The fact that some customers declare, “100 percent on-time is what I get from ordinary suppliers,” tells me that you, too, are on a stage, under the bright lights, in front of a packed audience with your own world-class organization behind you. It tells me that you, too, have a contingency plan and a team in place to ensure that your production will go on—even during an unexpected crisis.