Business continuity: don’t blame the digger

Whenever there is a disaster, you’re never far from a JCB. That’s the story.
They are blamed for more catastrophes than Cornish wreckers or Attila the Hun.
While there is a grain of truth in the reason for the blame, the real culprit is
far more mundane.

When disaster strikes

It’s true that when a JCB burst a high pressure water main in southern
England, it resulted in the closure of an engineering plant which had employed
several hundred people. Water had been needed not just for the manufacturing
process, but to flush toilets and wash hands. Health and safety considerations
required staff to go home.

The management had a water tanker delivered within a few hours, but no one
had a way of getting the water into the pipes. It took almost three days before
mains water was back on tap, at which time it was discovered that the sudden
loss of water had seriously damaged the plant. The factory closed for good.

Everyone blamed the JCB, but it was the lack of a workable business
continuity plan that was the culprit. The company had a plan of sorts. They were
prepared for bird flu, lightning strikes, transport and power failure. Its data
was backed up every day, too, but they hadn’t thought about the water.

Then there was the company whose telephone lines were its life lines. I can
be no more specific than say that they are a trading company which would lose
millions every hour if their phone and data lines went down. They had done what
was eminently sensible: had two telecoms providers, but along came the trusty
JCB and scuppered their plans. Both telecoms providers had used the same
ducting. After a lot of screaming, telephony was restored four hours and £47m
later. They had a plan, but it didn’t work.

When a high pressure gas main was hit by a JCB, it didn’t burst, but it was
damaged, with the fear that it might go up at any moment. The offices of more
than 60 companies were evacuated for more than a day, with total losses in
millions. Everybody blamed the JCB, but few blamed their business continuity

Planning ahead

Business continuity management is a box that everyone wants to tick, but
that’s the problem. There’s more concern about ticking the box than writing a
plan that works. A friend of mine asked me if I’d take a look at his company’s
plan. ‘It won’t take long,’ he said. ‘It’s just one side of A4.’

It really was. The company had a turnover in hundreds of millions and offices
in five locations. The plan was not a plan at all, just a list of phone numbers
to be used in an emergency. If only this story wasn’t true, but it is. At least
he had a list of emergency numbers off site. That’s more than the majority of
companies have.

Even long and detailed plans, costing hundreds of thousands or millions to
write, can be useless. The biggest single fault is planning against JCBs. Of
course, I use the term JCBs to stand for any cause of business interruption. For
JCB read ‘flood’, ‘fire,’ ‘terrorist,’ ‘explosion,’ ‘pandemic,’ ‘aircraft’ or
any one thing that might bring your operation to a halt.

It’s common sense to eliminate obvious threats to your operation. No one
should put a data centre on a flood plain nor a nuclear power station on a low
level flight path. You don’t put your server on the top floor under a water
tank, but all these things are obvious. Threats should be eliminated wherever
possible, but there are always threats no one has thought of. You can’t plan
against those.

Those who made a plan for the HQ of a certain emergency service didn’t plan
for a rat gnawing through a cable and disrupting command and control. The
offices of a financial institution in London didn’t even know that it was built
above a disused Post Office tunnel, stuffed with asbestos. Junk in the tunnel
caught fire and smoke seeped into the bank. The building was closed for weeks.
The lesson is: don’t plan against the JCB. They are lovely machines and do a lot
of good.

The trick of getting it right is to make plans against the loss of functions,
not against the cause of the loss of functions. If your operation needs its call
centre 24/7, there’s no need to plan against the JCB cutting the cables, or a
fire in the building or even a power failure. Sure, eliminate obvious threats,
but have contingency plans against the loss of operation of the call centre,
irrespective of the cause.

Skills for the job

Making a good job of your business continuity plan involves doing what is
known as a business impact assessment – weighing up the impact of loss of all
your organisation’s various functions. You’ll also need to establish the maximum
tolerable period of disruption for those functions and then a recovery time
objective. Only then can you begin to plan. None of this is as arcane as it
sounds and bears study. If it’s all new to you and you want to get cracking, get
some training first.

Go to the web site of the Business Continuity Institute and sign up for one
of their endorsed courses, such as the business continuity foundation course.

Must sign off now. There’s a traffic warden about and my JCB’s on a double
yellow line.

Geoff Howard is chief executive of Continuity Shop

The business continuity expo and conference, a dedicated event for
managing risk, resilience and recovery, will be held at Excel docklands from
28-29 March 2007. For details, see

For course information, see

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