"I spent so much time putting out fires until I realized I was the oxygen." — John Toussaint, MD
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.
But the real problem is the people in charge. Fighting fires instead of developing a plan to stop fire fighting and making sure it will not happen again is the job of management. 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.