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Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Stop Firefighting at Work, Make Time for Change

Many leaders often feel like there is an endless list of fires to put out in their business, with another popping up every time one is extinguished. They end up in a vicious cycle of knowing they need to improve, but feeling unable to get to the root cause of a problem before it bursts back to life, sending them rushing over to the fire extinguisher again.

Productivity goes down, profitability goes down, and the constant day-to-day battling demotivates staff. Meanwhile, managers have no time to work on the things that would really benefit the organization.

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.

When constant firefighting is the norm, it’s easy to fall into the trap of seeing the fire extinguisher as the hero. But it’s important to remember that fire extinguishers do not prevent fires from occurring. The fires will only stop once learning and root cause problem solving are valued over the firefighting itself.

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.

To prevent firefighting becoming the norm, leaders instead need to develop a culture of problem solving and fixing issues at the source. This is a skill that can be learnt. A good problem-solving manager will always begin by asking the Five Whys to get to the root cause of every issue.

Once the Whys have been identified, the next question should be “How can we stop this happening again?” This is a crucial part that many organizations tend to miss.

Empowering people

The next step is to delegate responsibility, rather than pass problems up the chain. Supervisors and staff members need to be empowered to ask the Five Whys and solve small issues themselves, thereby freeing up time for managers to focus on more important tasks and preventing other fires from occurring.

This requires coaching, which takes time and energy, but if you were to compare it to all the time and energy you spend fighting the same recurring problems, the investment is more than worthwhile.

Visual Management

Visualizing performance can be a useful tool in preventing fires from breaking out. This often takes the form of visual management boards showing metrics such as SQCDP (Safety, Quality, Cost, Delivery, People), which was certainly missing in the example of Company A above.


Another way of looking at a problem is to see it as a gap between the ‘standard’ and what’s actually happening in reality. Once you have identified the root cause of the gap (using the Five Whys) and how to close it, you create a new Standard Work to replace the old one.

If you don’t have any standard work instructions or operating procedures in place to begin with, it’s difficult to solve problems because you have nothing to compare against – you cannot really identify what went wrong.

When introducing a new standard to your organization, always use the Plan, Do, Check, Act (PDCA) cycle to ensure changes are planned and analyzed effectively before being adopted.

Improvement doesn’t just happen.  It takes time, and in the pressure pot of our day to day activities, there is never enough time to improve our situation. The structure of Lean permits and requires time be set aside for improvement. If managers do not definitively provide time for the task of improvement, then people will know that they are not serious about making improvement a formal part of the work.

There can be no improvement without the time and resource commitment from management to solve problems.

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