Sunday, July 12, 2009

Stop Fighting Fires

Unfortunately, a far too common management style in many companies is the reactionary style commonly referred to as fire fighting. But fire fighting consumes an organization's resources and damages productivity. Fire fighting derives from what seems like a reasonable set of rules--investigate all problems, for example, or assign the most difficult problems to your best troubleshooter. Ultimately, however, fire-fighting organizations fail to solve problems adequately. Fire fighting prevents us from getting to the root cause. And if we don’t get to the root of problem we will be right back to fire fighting soon.

The idea of fire fighting is to let a problem fester until it becomes a crisis, and then swoop in and fix it. Fire fighting is popular because it is exciting. Furthermore, it is a win-win situation for the fire fighter. If the fix works out, the fire fighter is a hero. If it doesn’t, the fire fighter can’t be blamed, because the situation was virtually hopeless to begin with. Notice that it is to the fire fighter’s advantage to actually let the problem become worse, because then there will be less blame if they fail or more praise if they succeed.

In many cases awareness is a key issue. Work goes on day-by-day, and the urgent and pressing needs of today's problems can be totaling absorbing. Some research suggests there are distinct differences between an organization culture that fights fires and one that solve problems.

But the real problem is the people in charge. Fighting fires instead of developing a plan to stop fire fighting and make sure it will not happen again. Most of us deplore the firefighting style, yet many managers and organizations perpetuate it by rewarding firefighters for the miraculous things they do. In fact, it may be the absence of a vision and plan that cause your organization to be so reactive, and spend a lot of time fire-fighting rather than proactively meeting the needs of your customers. This is all easier said than done, of course, but if you get things right the first time, there's usually not much fire-fighting later.

Mark Graban suggests that after putting the fire out you need to stop and fix the process:

Two simple questions to ask:
How and why did this problem occur?
How can we prevent it from happening again?

For the first question, you might use the "5 Whys" method of continuing to ask why until you reach something that really is a "root cause" rather than being a symptom/result of a more fundamental problem. With the second question, we focus on prevention. Use "error proofing" methods or ensure that a standardized process and method is in place.

“The problem is not that there are problems. The problem is expecting otherwise and thinking that having problems is a problem – Theodore Rubin”

Problems (fires) can be avoided and the resulting fire fighting by trying these proactive steps:
- Stop rewarding fire fighting and start recognizing fire preventing.
- Create a corrective and preventative action process based on root cause analysis.
- Put corrective action in place on the root cause of the problem
- Conduct follow-ups on corrective and preventative actions to ensure effectiveness.
- Share lessons learned from past opportunities so they are not repeated with another customer, order, project, etc.
- Use a strategic planning tool like SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats).
- Use mistake proofing and standard work practices.
- Implement “layered audits” (an ongoing chain of simple verification checks, which through observation, evaluation and conversations on the line, assure that key work steps are being performed

How are you going to stop fire fighting and start fire preventing? Only you can prevent company problems – a twist on what “Smokey the Bear” would say about wildfires.


  1. A friend and former colleague of mine said that the worst thing you could do in a company was to pull a rabbit out of a hat, because then the company would think that was the way things were supposed to work, and there'd be no incentive to fix the root cause.

  2. Dan, that is a great story. One I will have to use again myself. Thanks for sharing.