Six Things We Learned about Disaster Process Improvement… During a Huge Disaster

Richard Eaton

“When it is dark enough, you can see the stars”

Charles Beard 

As individuals, when we think of planning for disasters we tend to think of it in personal terms, such as keeping an emergency kit handy somewhere accessible  in the back yard. Governments, on our behalf, do the same and require specialized departments and ministries to prepare for a variety of unforeseen disasters, human caused or otherwise. 

As a consulting company, we frequently engage with government agencies to help them strengthen their approaches to a wide range of business issues. Usually these Continuous Improvement projects, as we call them, are delivered following much planning and forethought to ensure the maximum possible levels of engagement from staff and stakeholders focused on improving critical processes. It’s not surprising really. With full involvement, understanding and engagement, it’s always easier to improve the process, direction and people dimensions of organizational effectiveness. 

But what about when disaster strikes? What happens then? 

Well, we found out when we were called in to help Alberta Environment lead the recovery effort from the most costly natural disaster in Canadian history: the Southern Alberta Floods of 2013. During a flood of this size and scope, lots of things happen at once. For the Alberta government, one of the most important things was  to get Albertans’ lives back to normal as soon as possible. 

A critical first step on the road back to normality was the need to make it easier for impacted Albertans to quickly and accurately receive official authorization to repair the damage caused by the floods. For example, to drive heavy equipment around rivers and fish habitat without killing the fish and breaking the law. In short, we needed to help Alberta build some simple, legal, effective, and streamlined disaster recovery processes, and we needed to do it in a matter of days. 

This is what we learned from that experience: 

The Disaster In the days leading up to June 20, 2013, the province of Alberta experienced heavy rainfall that triggered catastrophic flooding described by the provincial government as the worst in Alberta’s history. Areas along the Bow, Elbow, Highwood, Red Deer, Sheep, Little Bow, and South Saskatchewan rivers and their tributaries were particularly affected. 

A total of 32 states of local emergency were declared and 28 emergency operations centres were activated as water levels rose and numerous communities were placed under evacuation orders. Four people were confirmed dead as a direct result of the flooding and over 100,000 people were displaced throughout the province. Some 2,200 Canadian Army troops were deployed to help in flooded areas. Total damage estimates exceeded $5 billion and in terms of insurable damages, is the costliest disaster in Canadian history at $1.7 billion. Receding waters gave way to a mammoth cleanup of affected areas, aided by a spontaneous volunteer campaign in which many home owners were assisted by complete strangers. 

The Immediate Response 

Over the next month, with the full support of everyone from the Minister on down, we facilitated a cross-functional team of Alberta Environment staff to redesign, streamline, realign and simplify over 40 land and water authorization oriented business processes. This team of experienced professionals mapped out the current processes, identified opportunities for improvement from the point of view of both the applicant and Alberta Environment, and created a redesigned process integrating the previously separate Water Act and Public Lands Act applications.  

They made significant improvements. The team reduced the number of steps in the approval process from over 50 to 20, adapted existing legislation to the need, and built a strong cross-organizational team of specialists ready to lead the implementation effort, together. Applications were also made accessible through a rapidly refreshed website. On July 12th, 2013 the Design Team rolled out the Expedited Authorization Process for Flood Recovery (EAPFR) to a large audience of staff and stakeholders. 

The Subsequent Response 

Recognizing that this experience was a powerful learning opportunity for regulatory agencies everywhere, we were also asked to help Alberta Environment map the processes they used  during  the recovery efforts for 15 different business areas: from soil contamination and remediation to dam management. These processes were supplemented with the ‘during the disaster’ procedures captured during interviews with the staff who led the response and recovery effort. 

Another important consideration for the recovery effort was to provide funds to First Nations and Municipalities, in the form of grants and other financial incentives, to assist with reconstruction work related to flood damage. To this end, we also helped create  a new Flood Recovery Erosion Control Program. Conceived and launched within only a few weeks, this program was well received with funding disbursements increasing rapidly from $20 million up to $216 million. We also helped Alberta Environment roll out several similar programs to assist Albertans with the recovery effort.


In June 2014, Alberta Environment’s South Saskatchewan Region was recognized for their good work with a national award for Innovation from the Institute for Public Administration Canada, at the Institute’s annual conference in Edmonton. 

Six things We Learned about Disaster Process Improvement  

1.  It is easy to get people involved 

When delivering improvement projects in workplaces with lower levels of urgency, it can be difficult to generate much interest from staff. Most people are already busy on a variety of tasks and, as a result, it can be tough to get them focused on ‘yet another’ high priority. 

During a disaster, this is not a problem. On the contrary, it takes a special effort to carefully manage who is involved directly, and who needs to be in a supporting role. This, of course, is usually decided by management teams, as was the case for the 2013 floods, during an intense, focused strategic planning session at the very beginning of the project. As the project progressed and new challenges were revealed, it was important to check in with the management team on a regular basis to make decisions regarding the team’s composition, and moving people in or out of the project as and when required. 

2.  Prioritize or perish 

When your task is to eliminate barriers to the approval of processes for tens of thousands of applications in the midst of a historically massive natural disaster, everything can look like a high priority. However, you will never have enough time to do everything. Before and during the redesign effort, it’s therefore important to review priorities on a continual basis, and ruthlessly de-emphasize or ‘park’ less immediately important tasks. Having a clear project charter developed early on can help, of course, but charters can rapidly become obsolete during the design phase as new and innovative solutions emerge quickly. This is where strong, consistent facilitation and reminding people of the overall vision, and the higher and clear est priorities, can pay dividends later on.  

3.  ‘Simple, fast and good enough’ is great 

It is important to be flexible in the delivery of project methodology. Although Berlineaton’s Continuous Improvement approach is somewhat more flexible than most, we still had to adapt and modify things on the fly to meet the pressing needs of the hour. Redesign outputs need to be easily understood, and deployed on current or slightly modified platforms, to make sure that everyone can use them. Yesterday.  

Also, this is not a beauty contest, so you have to be willing to cut corners and implement fairly ‘plain Jane’, utilitarian products rather than wait until everything is finely engineered. People will usually make up for any gaps in the tools, largely due to their innate ability to rise to the occasion during a crisis. Later on you can do a second pass and tidy up the details but, if you try to do that during the crisis, you may find yourself a collateral casualty of the recovery effort as the Design Team steamrolls over you to solve the problem faster. 

4.  Deploy tight teams with empowerment and top cover 

Mainly thanks to Hollywood, popular perceptions of heroic leadership during disasters abound. Usually, this leadership paradigm takes the form of one brave (and, coincidentally, ruggedly good looking) individual who, through Herculean efforts, saves the day. The reality of successfully managed disaster process improvement is quite different. 

The best Design Teams are small, usually under 12 people, and cross functional, drawn from a wide range of work units, disciplines and experience. Although, during the 2013 flood, the Design Team topped out at 20 people or more on occasion, core Design Team membership remained fairly tight and consistent. This project also benefitted from a leader, Martin Foy, the Executive Director of the South Saskatchewan Region, who was clear that his role included providing his teams ‘empowerment with top cover,’ creating space and time for innovation and self-management. His boss, Matthew Machielse , adopted a similar approach, as did their management teams. In many ways this leadership style modeled  . Using these principles, a successful Design Team will resemble a band of ‘Good Fanatics’, operating a Skunk Work as opposed to a Kraftwerk

5.  It pays to do a little housekeeping beforehand 

Unless you missed the memo, you will probably agree that climate change is a reality that will impact all of us, with variable yet increasing levels of severity, now and as far as we can see into the future. One of the most important impacts of climate change is an increase in temperature, which leads to a greater likelihood of natural disasters. As explained by NASA: “Changes in climate not only affect average temperatures, but also extreme temperatures, increasing the likelihood of weather-related natural disasters.” 

An increasing likelihood of natural disasters clearly means an increasing need for effective disaster management processes at all levels: from individuals and families, to nations and the global community. When disaster strikes, just like preparing your house for an earthquake, you can mitigate its impacts through the efforts you make beforehand to simplify complex processes and tools. 

Alberta suffered from a significant flood in 2005. Although much smaller than the 2013 floods, the 2005 event spurred some improvements in authorization processes that helped pave the way for the much more extensive work later. Regardless, most agreed that more could have been done to make things easier as part of a regular program and process review process. This is especially true in workplaces where legislation, policy and regulations are likely to have been have been updated, or otherwise changed, on a regular basis. 

Bottom line: you need to invest now to save (lives, property, money and time) later. 

6.   You can never think of everything 

In the final analysis, it’s almost impossible to be ready for every eventuality. The myriad of detailed differences that will emerge from anything you have done before can rapidly overtake just about any prior planning efforts. 

In many ways, the most important preparation work completed by Alberta Environment in general, and the South Saskatchewan Regional office in particular, before the 2013 floods was to build a strong team. Empowering leaders, self-managed staff with high levels of knowledge and accountability, strong relationships based on mutual respect and accountability, and flexible, team based approaches to the latest unforeseen crisis, all these things helped ensure that disaster process improvement work flowed smoothly and with great purpose and power; much like the natural forces they were seeking relief from, of course. 

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