Business as UnusualWritten by Gregg Jacobsen Thursday, 15 November 2007 13:59
For the Business Continuity Planner/Consultant, one of the more difficult aspects of the project is gaining the cooperation of critical process owners. The obstacles encountered vary with the organization and its culture, but have themes like this:
- "I’m too busy to worry about that disaster stuff right now."
- "If something happens, we’ll get going without any special plans."
- "My people know our jobs; a disaster won’t make them forget."
- "If things get that bad, I guess we won’t care anyway, will we?"
But for the Planner/Consultant, this is a barrier that must be overcome to establish a viable recovery and/or continuity plan. The message in the above statements translates into: "I don’t understand how post-disaster operations will be different than business-as-usual." The anxiety associated with anticipated trauma must be assuaged by demonstrating how effective planning can reduce, if not eliminate many of the downside risks of a disaster event.
It’s easy to show fairly frightening statistics of how a disaster causing a one-week interruption can doom a firm. But while the CEO, the CFO and the Risk Manager (by what ever title) get the sweats just thinking about such stark possibilities, their functional managers - owners of critical business processes - don't often make the connection to their own areas. Instead, they need to see the positive possibilities of risk avoidance, of planning well enough that they no longer have reason to fret the future. By helping them realize their own ability to reduce the potential for loss, the Planner/Consultant can then redirect their focus toward the out-of-box thinking that is required for business continuity planning. What is hard for them to see is the unusual nature of doing business after a disaster. What the Planner/Consultant must do is identify what obstructs their view of post-disaster reality and remove it.
So, what are these obstacles? Mostly a collection of avoidance mechanisms to help them feel less uncomfortable about disaster. In short, they are avoiding feelings of fear and uncertainty, mainly because the very nature of disaster is uncertainty.
One never knows when, where or how severely it will strike, so it is understandable that many avoid efforts to plan for uncertain outcomes. But in reality, it is actually much easier to foresee some of the most dire outcomes and plan alternative measures, should they occur. The key is to focus on each process, first, in the "usual" mode, then, step at a time, in the "unusual" mode.
By "unusual," I mean under disaster-impacted circumstances. And this is not quite as obvious as it may sound. Example from experience (paraphrased to protect the... well, you understand):
Readings of customer product usage were a key element of an accounts payable process, recorded on magnetic media on a LAN server drive. Upon closer scrutiny, I found that billing rate adjustments were made, based on histories stored in hard copy files in office. Not backed up (on microfilm) offsite, this process step was a potential show-stopper, if the disaster prevented access to the office where the files are stored. Now, most any Planner/Consultant would have spotted this, BUT the process owner did not! It was simply not a "usual" condition or possibility for him to consider, so he hadn’t.
This discovery was the result of three interviews with a process owner. In the first, the steps were noted sequentially, then read back, which garnered additional details. Then, I developed a flowchart of the process steps and took it back for the second interview. For the first time, the process owner was able to look at what he was doing objectively. As I walked him through the chart, he quickly saw more gaps in detail, which were recorded for inclusion. A third interview was conducted after these changes were made. This was the "business-as-unusual" discussion that uncovered the exposure to losing access to those vital records. As the need for creating a back-up became clear, I referred him to the Records Manager, who had a program established precisely for this contingency. (He admitted that he’d heard of the program, but had never regarded the history files as possible candidates for it.)
In the aerospace/defense industry, a long-standing discipline in the design of systems, both hardware and software, is Failure Modes and Effects Analysis or FMEA. The approach is simple: look at product design, both at the materials and the processes that produce it, to detect possible ways that it can fail during use. Particularly in military applications, FMEA is a critical element in ensuring that systems will perform for our combat personnel, when called upon. Combat is the very definition of "business-as-unusual" in this regard. While you and I may be comfortable traveling in commercial aircraft for business and pleasure, would YOU want to try landing one on an aircraft carrier? The vastly greater forces involved in such landings demands the most rigorous airframe and landing gear design, including materials and assembly processes, to prevent catastrophe. While FMEA is a distinct engineering discipline, its principles apply directly to business continuity planning.
Although not technically-focused, this method of analysis, which I have come to call "bullet-proofing the process," is very useful in opening clients’ minds to see where improvements can be made. Consider a business process that uses vendor support, whether materials, labor, or both: how vulnerable is the process to the vendor being wiped out by disaster?
Even if impacts to the in-house process have been otherwise mitigated, does the vendor represent an Achilles heel? Purchased and subcontracted materials and services must be included in the planning effort any time they touch a critical business process. In such cases, developing vendor partnering agreements that include provisions for pre-disaster planning and joint reviews and/or exercises, where appropriate, can yield significant strategic benefits, should disaster strike.
Across the breadth of enterprise operations, firms do things great and small, critical and inconsequential, in the course of their daily doings.
To survive the simple, ever-present currents of competition and change, diligence must be exercised to maintain balance amidst such forces, and yet continue to vie for market share and profitability. While the risks of disaster may present a low statistical profile, the vastly more acute pressures on survival they represent justify a careful, prudent evaluation of what is necessary to do business "as unusual."
Gregg Jacobsen is a Business Process Consultant based in Westlake Village, CA. With an MBA in Organization Development and over ten years in formal Quality Assurance systems, he is currently applying process improvement and re-engineering methods to BCP work at a major public utility in the Los Angeles area. He is preparing a book, tentatively titled Management by Aesop, which uses the Greek slave’s fables to illustrate principles of business management.