What Can Waffles Teach Us About Resilience?

One of the hallmarks of resilient organizations is their ability to anticipate challenges and opportunities and to adjust performance during expected and unexpected events. In fact, Dr. Erik Hollnagel, using the Resilience Assessment Grid describes four “potentials” of resilient systems; the potential to Respond, Monitor, Learn and Anticipate.1 Organizations must be able to respond to disruptions and opportunities, and adjust performance accordingly in their effort to operate. They should monitor the signals for change that could affect performance both within the organization and in the operational environment. They should be able to learn from experience (after all, if organizations fail to learn they may miss opportunities to improve). They should also be able to anticipate changes (both positive and negative) that could impact the organization.

I like these four potentials because they give us something to consider when designing resilience into our organizations. In fact, I recently had a conversation with a colleague about how to “operationalize” resilience into companies. That certainly is a challenge, as it requires a shifting towards systems thinking and an understanding of the impacts on system components (such as business divisions) and how they work together to accomplish the goals of the overall system (such as the entire company), but it is possible. In fact, as part of my Ph.D. research this semester I am studying how organizations use sustained adaptability and work to create resilience. One area where we can learn about resilience is by studying responses to crisis.

Although I should point out that resilience is not only related to crisis planning and response and if we only look at it through that lens we may miss key opportunities to learn and improve. However, crisis planning and response does offer a unique perspective on resilience. We can learn a few lessons about resilience as we reflect on Hurricane Matthew and how one organization plans and reacts. The restaurant Waffle House has developed a set of plans it uses during severe storms. In fact, the restaurants close so rarely closes that it has been said a former administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) actually coined a term called the “Waffle House Index” to help identify how an area is responding during and after a storm. The index has 3 levels: Green (open), Yellow (serving a limited menu) and Red (closed). The company starts tracking the storms and planning for their response. To me what is really interesting is the ability to plan for how the restaurants will adjust performance to meet the needs of customers. For example, if the idea is that it is better to be able to serve some food than a full menu, then offering a limited menu may help the restaurant management prioritize and “choose sausage over bacon because the sausage takes up less grill space, and to actually not serve waffles because the cooking processes uses too much electricity.”2 If one of the markers of a resilient organization is the ability to continue operations despite disruptions, then Waffle House certainly has some points we can learn from.

Learning is important because that is how we improve. In resilient organizations leaders, managers and team members learn and take action on what they have learned. Stories like how the “The Waffle House Index” impacts disaster response are interesting and play a big part in learning. In fact we hear stories about the amazing resilience of people and communities as they handle the devastation during and after storms and start the recovery process. Storytelling plays a large role in history and the way we shape our organizations.

Understanding not only the story itself, but also how to tell it in a compelling and repeatable way may make the difference between achieving our vision and goals with the story or falling short. One of the problems is that most people don’t understand the process and framework for telling a story. I hope to solve that problem with my Storytelling “Master Class” Online Course. Many of you have already signed up for more information. In fact, I have seen more rapid interest in the products I have created around this course than any other product so far. The course is currently open for enrollment and will begin on October 24th, 2016. If you would like to enroll please click here. 

As you work to create resilience in your organization, perhaps take time to consider how you operationalize the potentials to respond, monitor, learn and anticipate. I hope this post has been useful and I wish you a great, safe and productive day! If you liked this post, I would appreciate it if you would share it using the share buttons on this page or simply copy and paste the link. Thanks again!

With much appreciation,


1.     http://erikhollnagel.com/ideas/resilience%20assessment%20grid.html

2.     http://news.wabe.org/post/how-fema-uses-waffle-house-measure-disasters