Business Continuity lessons from a Waffle House

When you think about Business Continuity, who comes to mind as the best prepared organisations?

Probably the emergency services or perhaps utility providers? Both are good examples, but the company that FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) uses as its benchmark is a chain of Waffle Houses.

“Waffle House” has over 1,500 restaurants across the American South. They’re open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Closure of a branch is so rare that FEMA uses the “Waffle Index” as an informal measure of a storm. It uses a traffic light system of Green (full menu), Yellow (limited menu) and Red (closed) to measure the impact on a community. That index lets FEMA know where they need to direct its efforts.

The changing risk landscape

The risk landscape is changing, and we need to adapt accordingly.

We’ve had multiple large-scale Business Continuity events this year. Storm Eunice, a record-breaking heatwave, and multiple ransomware attacks. COVID-19 also remains a major cause of disruption.

Then there’s the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. The event has sent shockwaves across the global economy causing mass-destabilisation, threatening food shortages along with energy and fuel crises.

We don’t need to plan for every conceivable event (who predicted Eyjafjallajökull’s disruption in 2010?), rather, the small number of impacts they share. If you can deal with unavailability of premises, IT, staff, and suppliers, you should be well-prepared for almost any incident

In Risk Management, there are two metrics we use to score a risk: the likelihood of occurrence and the impact.

Some risks are increasing in likelihood. The World Economic Forum lists extreme weather, cyber attacks and infectious diseases as some of the top risks over the next decade.

The more significant trend however is that due to changing attitudes, the impact of incidents is growing. There is now less tolerance when things go wrong.

We've all become used to a 24/7 way of life. Ten years ago, a 24-hour IT outage could be shrugged-off. Now, it is met with near-vehement fury.

Lessons from Waffle House

Business Continuity is something that is both very easy and incredibly difficult.

It’s easy because BC is really just common sense applied at scale. 

It’s difficult because it’s so easy to neglect in the face of seemingly more urgent tasks. And once neglected, plans can quickly become out of date and no-longer fit for purpose.

So why is Waffle House so resilient? It’s quite simple. It has been through a lot of disruption and has put in place plans and methods to keep operating in difficult situations. When disasters happen, HQ communicates with staff to find out who can and can’t work. It has “jump teams” who quickly reopen stores after a disaster. Its “Limited Menu” is designed to work with food shortages and power outages.

Business Continuity has a bad reputation for being overly complex and riddled with consultants’ models. Instead, we should all aim to be like Waffle House with simple, practical solutions that keep operations going.



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