One of the most destructive habits in a company is the firefighting response. You know the scene: someone alerts the team to an urgent situation, perhaps in response to an angry customer. A chain reaction of activity is set off across the office to try and swiftly handle the issue. Things are eventually brought under control by throwing resource at the situation and everyone is left exhausted . After this period of unplanned activity, everyone gets back to their routine work.
Reacting to unexpected challenges
Many businesses rely on firefighters to keep running and solve unexpected challenges and keep the business operating. Like real firefighters, they are often valued and perhaps celebrated. But have you thought that by rewarding firefighting you might be creating a culture of arsonists? Sometimes firefighting can be exciting, but on closer inspection the vast majority of fires are probably preventable. Why wait for a fire to start burning when you could prevent it starting the first place?
A problem that never occurred is much better than a problem that was fixed. Your day to day operations are the last thing that deserve a firefighting approach – your focus and your time is better spent on preventing the issues occurring rather than putting out the fires.
Does your business rely too much on firefighting?
Here are 12 warning signs that your business relies on fighting rather than preventing fires:
1. Variation in quality
Does your team use different processes to complete the same task? Do you have clear and easy to follow processes that allow work to be easily repeated? If you do already, are they being used?
2. Rework and repeated site visits
Perhaps due to errors, missing equipment or tools. How much rework do you do?
3. Root causes left undiscovered or unfixed
When something last went wrong was time taken to understand the root cause? Was something put in place to prevent it happening again?
4. Missing or late information
Do your team have accurate and timely information to perform their tasks? Are they ever unable to answer questions about the current state of tasks?
5. Bottle necks
How much time do people spend waiting on tools, inventory, people or information to get things done?
6. Customer satisfaction
When did you last ask for or receive feedback on your service? Remember that whereas some customers will complain, some will simply change supplier to avoid the conflict.
7. Long email chains
Do you have long email chains with lengthy discussions around routine issues that could be standardised processes?
8. Blame and lack of responsibility
When things go wrong, are there consistent and unproductive discussions around responsibility?
Are there certain team members that hold all of the knowledge about certain areas of your business? Does your team struggle every time a certain person goes on holiday.
Looking around your office on a normal day, how frequently do you see your team running from meeting to meeting, barely finishing one before heading into the next. Does it look like they are in control or do they feel like they are struggling to stay on top of work.
11. Lack of improvement
When was the last time you improved a process based on feedback from an employee or customer? When was the last time you actively and sought open feedback.
12. Crisis motivation
How often do you see your team responding to crisis situations? Are things genuinely urgent? Could the situation have been better anticipated?
Preventing business firefighting with Continuous Improvement
Solving problems permanently is better than having to deal with them repeatedly. According to McKinsey research, some frustrated General Managers can spend as much as 67% more time dealing with short term, unexpected emergencies and 25% less time setting over all strategy.
It's easy to see how much energy is wasted on running things inefficiently. Spending too much time on some activities, and not enough on others. The key to preventing crises from reoccurring is good time management. Alongside developing a robust system to get to the root causes of issues and implement change.
A simple system to get things under control without becoming overwhelmed is Continuous Improvement. When you succeed in solving underlying problems crises will reduce in frequency. This will not only make the working environment more pleasant, it will free up time and mental energy to move your business forwards.