At a cross roads

The Business Continuity Institute




Richard Reed discusses how the American Red Cross undertook a major overhaul of its disaster management processes, and highlights the many positive outcomes that have been achieved

Can you begin by giving a sense of the scale and diversity of the role played by the American Red Cross in disaster management?

The American Red Cross has been providing disaster-related services in one form or another in the US for over 130 years. During this period, we have witnessed the evolution of various new social, governmental and technological structures; yet it is fair to say that today, in the 21st century, our fundamental role really hasn’t changed – the way we carry out our services has changed somewhat, yet the mission we set all those years ago still holds true.

In terms of our day-to-day activities in the US, we respond 70,000 times per year on average – once every 8 minutes – to what are on the whole localised, small scale events. We leverage a core base of volunteers and partners, as well as our staff members, who are spread across the country. They work closely with the emergency services to help those families affected, whether that be by providing a safe place to stay, clothes or food – whatever short-term measures are required to help them get back on their feet.

You moved from your role as Deputy Assistant to the President for Homeland Security into your current role. How ‘straightforward’ was the transition?

From a mission perspective, there really was very little difference. Whether working for the federal government or a non-profit organisation, my role is primarily the same – how I can leverage the resources of an organisation to help solve often quite complicated problems affecting multiple parties.

The transition between structures, however, was more challenging. Moving from the federal structure in which I had been inculcated for 20 years to a non-profit structure meant I had a fairly steep learning curve. Having said that, the American Red Cross had already acknowledged that the structure it had in place was not the one it needed moving forward, so I was there to help them figure out what that new structure should be.

It seems fair to say you dived in at the deep-end by beginning your tenure with a comprehensive assessment of the organisation’s processes and procedures. How challenging a process was this and what did it unearth?

As I mentioned, the leadership had already decided that these structures needed to evolve. What I brought to the process was a lifetime of experience in dealing with complex disasters, which taught me how to capitalise on the resources available to me to achieve results.

So we began by conducting a series of satisfaction surveys across our various stakeholders. We are primarily a voluntary organisation, serving our volunteers, partners and clients at the federal, state and local level. What we learned was that the functions and structures we had were not aligned with the disaster management cycle. The organisation was operating as a number of silos of excellence – we were bifurcated if not trifurcated in the way we functioned, and this was causing confusion and increasingly dissatisfaction amongst our staff, volunteers and partners.

A key problem was that we had a very inconsistent and ill-defined process methodology. Our processes had been designed when we had a very different field structure, one based on a quasi-franchise model in which each field function operated independently, meaning it was hard to maintain any centralised consistency of our service delivery.

Another factor was that the expectations of our stakeholders had dramatically increased. Part of this was due to increased scrutiny from traditional and social media in particular which had improved the ability to communicate what was happening on the ground after an event much more quickly. In the past, such communications would have been lagging indicators – we would have an event, we would deploy resources and execute the operational activities, and then we would stop and look at how we did. However, the emergence of social media now meant we were able to obtain real-time feedback on our performance.

What were your primary objectives at this stage and how did you go about delivering on them?

We set ourselves a series of pretty simple goals. We wanted to meet our clients’ needs and expectations, and leverage our organisation’s capacity to deliver on them. We wanted to optimise our ability to support and enable a primarily volunteer workforce. We also wanted to build the organisational capacity to deliver our services more effectively. And so we undertook a re-engineering process based on a five-phase model.

Phase one began in April 2012. The aim was to prime and initiate the overall process, and also to get the right team in place to manage it. Phase two was the discovery and interview stage, during which we talked to our partners, clients, staff, volunteers and government to get a sense of what their expectations were for the Red Cross. We took all of that data and analysed it in stage three to establish what they were telling us and what this meant for our organisation. In phase four, we set about establishing the solutions we needed based on our understanding of this data which we brought to our leadership for approval. Finally, phase five saw us begin the design and implementation stage.

At a macro level, our approach was pretty simple. What we learned was that our stakeholders expected us to be reliable and to deliver consistent, high quality services. We also needed to be active across all phases of the disaster cycle – we had a tendency to focus on the response, but not really the preparedness or recovery stages.

We also had to create greater flexibility at the local level – we could not drive everything from HQ, so we needed to put in place decision-making parameters that allowed those at the point closest to the client to make certain decisions.

How long did it take to complete this five stage process?

These five phases took us about a year to complete. It wasn’t a particularly slow process, but we were very deliberate in our approach.

At the start, we made a couple of key decisions that everything we did would focus on delivering service to our clients and that would guide us as we move forward. The second thing was that once we figured out what we wanted to do to deliver those services, the next step would be to establish what the right processes and structures were to deliver those services.

We established three core processes for the American Red Cross which were a little bit different from how we had worked historically: ‘preparedness’, ‘response’ and ‘recovery’.

Once we had these in place, we had to decide what it was that made each of them work – and that’s where we came up with our pillars or enablers. First, we had to think about how we engaged our volunteers and employees in these. The second enabler needed to help us to effectively mobilise the community. The third would ensure that our activities were aligned with those of the government so that the structures, processes and even the lexicon we used were translatable across systems. We also needed to be able to capture and leverage situational awareness and information management capabilities. The final enabler had to help us pool our resources – material, technological and personnel – in the most optimised way. So we had three core processes and five enablers – if we did these things right we would achieve the outcome of meeting our clients’ needs as they had described them.

We then needed to consider what the right organisational structure was. We were very straightforward in our approach. We needed a doctrinal framework which defined all of our processes and actions. So we created a doctrine training and continuous improvement programme in which we detailed all our key activities, such as setting up a shelter, feeding people, bulk distribution – essentially a roadmap for those in the field. We then developed a series of development shops to help us establish our ‘prepare’, ‘respond’ and ‘recover’ programmes. This meant there was a symmetry between the umbrella doctrine and the programme development. And finally, we established an operations and logistic capability that would support our efforts to deliver the doctrine and the various programmes.

We have a very simple management structure that sits behind that. I have three vice presidents: one running the doctrine training and continuous improvement; one running programme development; and one running the operational and logistics side. That represents the totality of the HQ element that is then charged with developing the tools for the field to use to execute the mission.

The final step was to look at how better to deliver our services at a local level. Often when a disruptive event takes place, those at HQ take out their ‘1,000 mile screwdriver’ and try to fix it, which is an inefficient way of doing things. You have to understand the culture of the community effected, the social and political environment that exists there – all the things that make that community unique. So this is why we focused on pushing the power to the edge. I took a third of our staff and budget and reallocated it into the field. Their job was to execute the programme development and the operations we provided at the local level.

How easy was it to implement such a significant series of changes to the organisation?

This whole process made complete sense to me, but it was a bit of a bitter pill for some because it challenged the existing structures – so initially we came up against some institutional inertia. What I can tell you is that one year later we have achieved phenomenal results. We have a very clear understanding of the doctrinal programme development, operations and logistics, and we have a consistent set of structures and guidelines. We are able to respond more quickly to local events using local people. We have also created capacity at the field level which replicates what HQ used to do, and which makes us far more efficient, effective and timely.

Without the process improvement part, you never understand how things are working. You understand how you designed them and how you intended them to work, but it is only in the application that you really see whether they do work. The beautiful thing about our processes is that they are designed to reinforce and continually feedback real-time activities and information so we can make adjustments going forward. It’s quite a straightforward system but the impact on the organisation is quite visible – anyone can contribute to this and we have created different ways for people to give us feedback. And that links right back to the process – what part didn’t work and how do we improve it.

The organisation sees itself as having a convening role. Can you expand on this?

Perhaps the best thing to do is to give you an example of our role as a convener. In 2013, a tornado destroyed an elementary school in Oklahoma resulting in the deaths of several children. Shortly after the event, I met with the Governor’s Director of Emergency Management, to discuss their recovery priorities. He asked me why we needed to discuss recovery plans so soon after such a tragic event. I explained that while the response was being well executed and there was a significant outpouring of support, it was important that he looked to leverage that support as much as possible now as it would eventually diminish. So I asked him what he needed and he replied that he wished they had more tornado shelters.

We called a meeting of all the non-profit organisations working on the recovery. I explained to them that, while they were all doing a great job in helping those affected get back on their feet, we now had an additional opportunity to help not only the recovery process but also improve preparedness levels as they had identified their number one priority – to have more storm shelters. The Red Cross, I said, would put ‘X’ dollars into building more shelters, and every other organisation followed suit. Now, as we enter this year’s storm season in Oklahoma, work is continuing on the construction of some 6,000 new tornado shelters in the state.

That is an example of leading and convening, and also an example of how the recovery process is feeding into the preparedness process, which then influences the response process. What I say is that preparedness is an activity which as a process represents a down payment on response and an investment in recovery. At the end of the day if you do the math and your efforts don’t equal that then you are doing it wrong.

What more still needs to be done to ensure that the American Red Cross is prepared for any eventuality?

Stage six in the process is about acknowledging that this process never ends. You need to say this in a way that the organisation will understand, so I use the term ‘evolution’ – we are always evolving. We are constantly evaluating and updating our processes as we go forward. The way we do this is becoming institutionalised and has been accepted into general business practice. It will, however, take a generation of learning for this to become second nature in the American Red Cross and become fully integrated into the humanitarian space – but we are well on the way. In most organisations, people institute a change which others accommodate and then they think they are done with changing. What the re-engineering environment says is that you are never done changing.

Richard Reed is senior vice president of the American Red Cross

Continuity coverThis article first appeared in the 2015 Q2 edition of Continuity – The Magazine of the Business Continuity Institute. To download your free copy, just click here.