Some Type o’ Disaster: M, B…eh?

I’ve been wanting to post this for about a week or so but so I’m glad I’ve finally got the chance.  In many disaster situations, sometimes the disaster isn’t caused by a calamitous affair or situation.  Sometimes it can be caused by some simple errors.  Kind of like the old saying, “From Little Acorns do Mighty Oaks Grow.”  A case in point would be the May 6th (2010) typo that sent Wall Street and the Dow Jones into chaos.

 It’s been allegedly reported that a trader accidentally typed in a “B” instead of an “M” on one of his or her transactions, causing chaos and turbulent moments on Wall Street.  For those that might not get what I’m referring to; the “B” stood for Billions when it should have been a “M” for Millions. Not a tiny mistake there, is it?  Well, actually, it is a small mistake but it had a huge impact.  Of course, I doubt it was intentional; it was just something that happened.

 How often have you worked on something – a letter, a document, an email…anything – and accidentally typed in the wrong word, letter or number and not had it caught by spell-check or other grammatical functions (including your own review)?  Probably quite more than you’d like to admit to.  How often have you had “form” instead of “from” typed somewhere and never had it flagged as an error?  I’ll admit to a few times…  The typo caused a panic on Wall Street and in moments, the Dow Jones lost almost a thousand points – the largest one-day drop ever!  …and it was a typo.  It wasn’t a hurricane, an offshore oil disaster or some civil strife in a far off country.  It was a slip of a finger.

 This situation brought a few things to mind, though.  The one thing that is very hard to include in any sort of Business Continuity plan – be it Technology Recovery, Crisis Communications Plan, BCP or other plan – is the human element.  No one can truly plan for the human element.  Sure, we can come up with all sorts of documents, plans and processes and have complete involvement with their development from the very beginning but when it comes to people, we might have some issues.  Why?

 People are different; none of us are the same (What a boring world that would be).  That isn’t news to anyone, surely.  Therefore, when a disaster strikes people will respond differently and that includes those that may be responsible to activate various plans.  But, what is also unknown is that disasters can be caused by people making mistakes.  I’m not talking terrorists or angry employees; I’m talking honest people who simply because they were distracted or in a hurry (for whatever reason) make a mistake.  In this case, a simply typo.  The B isn’t that far away from the M on a keyboard.  If it’s on a small hand-held device, the potential is even greater to accidentally hit the wrong letter because those darn things can be so cumbersome in your hands and not easily stabilized when you’re trying to type a message. 

 For me, it also brought up the point that software packages and applications can’t take into account the ‘human’ factor.  Sure, they ask for the number of people working on a process, in a location or some other identifier but they still can’t get into who the person is.  Any application that says it can is full of…well, you know (in my opinion anyway).  It can probably tell you how many desks you need and how many other peripheral devices are required when a disaster strikes – including the number of people you need – but it can’t take into account people when they aren’t there.  Let’s be honest, when a disaster strikes it’s highly unlikely you have time to run back to your application and change some input to find out what you’re contingency plan would be.  You might be able too but I doubt that’s what is actually going to happen. 

 People are always the unknown element in a disaster.  It’s odd to say that really.  Every disaster has some sort of impact on people but people are the unknown.  It’s almost an contradiction, don’t you think?  Back to the initial beginning; a small typo had a huge impact on the Dow Jones as investors panicked and went crazy.  Many investment housed were on the phone with their clients figuring out strategies and other measures to put in place.  Hmm, I wonder what category that would fall into; crisis management, emergency response or a contingency plan or or…??  Luckily, the error was found quick enough and the Dow gained back over 650 points of those that it lost.  Still, that little error made for big impacts.  Remember, we’re talking millions and millions and millions of dollars changing hands, so a small typo (a B instead of an M) can cause a major catastrophe for some people.   I guess the trader was all thumbs that day…

 Many corporations will look at the bigger items that can cause a disaster; floods, fires, mainframe failure, power outages etc.  But very few think of what might happen as a result of smaller items.  For example, a roll of printer paper (the BIG rolls for statements and cheques) can be secured incorrectly and fall away from its moorings and severely injure a worker (or worse).  Was this a major disaster?  Well, depends on how you look at it.  If the situation did cause for a casualty then you’re going to have your operations suspended (in the affected facility) while investigations occur and you’re going to be in the headlines – like it or not.  If it’s found that a small clamp was defective (that held the role in place) or that it was put in place incorrectly, then that little error – a human error – will have a major impact on your operations.  In this case, if the clamp/clip or tie wasn’t put together correctly, I think it should have been captured during regular facility inspections (usually by the Health & Safety department).  Proactively finding these small things can help minimize the impact and fix a wrong before it causes issues down the road. 

 The point is, a disaster can be caused by small things just as much as larger, more complex (and known) items.  And often, these small things can be caused by unintentional errors in human judgment or haste.  I doubt the trader made his/her typo intentionally, it was just a basic error we’re all guilty of.  I know I’m guilty of making the odd misstakes.  😉

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2 thoughts on “Some Type o’ Disaster: M, B…eh?

  1. Gidday Alex

    Thanks for your always interesting blogs about BCM. I sometimes print to read later and caught up on your “Some Type o’ Disaster” blog of 24 May 2010. I thought I had a couple of ideas to add to the debate.

    Unlike many BCMs, I come from a HR rather than a IT/DR background, so people issues have always been “front and centre” of BCPs that I have been tangled up with over the past 4+ years.

    The human element in BCPs has been pushed along by pandemic influenza planning. The earliest BCPs I have found were described as “infrastructure plans” or as I have often described it – ‘What to do if the building falls down?’ Y2K drove ICT DRPs and now pandemic planning has extracted the implicit people issues and made them increasingly explicit in “modern” BCPs.

    How to include people in BCPs? Critical staff contact lists, awareness raising workshops, exercising – all help. In my view, exercising is about continuous improvement of your BCP, but also building confidence in the staff that they can do it/execute their plans and reduce the downtime for their organisations when a non-routine business disruption strikes.

    Your point about finding “small things…before it causes issues down the road” reminded me of the concept of “mindfulness” from High Reliability Organisations/Management(HRO/HRM) literature – Weick & Sutcliffe; Row & Schulmann, Andrew Hopkins and so on. Also one of the latest BCI surveys seems to support the view that “jumping on things” early and fixing (what I call the preparation phase in my business recovery procedures templates) reduces the frequency of invocations. Its logically if your business is better prepared for disruptions and put in place more disruption risk migrations then you narrow the band of non-routine disruptions because you have bought what previously were non-routine into the routine and dealt with it in advance or quickly fixed when small things/incidents appears.

    Sorry to be so long in my comment, but I think these are important points to further the discipline of BCM.

    With thanks and regards, Chris

    • Hi Chris,

      Thank you for the comments. I agree with you assessment and when I started in this industry (many years ago) I too found all plans to be IT related so I know how you feel. 😉 I do like the comments about BCP continuous improvement – I feel the same but it can be a challenge (it is with my current client right now but I’m slowly getting them turned around…).

      Alex

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