Stop Putting Out Work Fires

By December 17, 2019 October 28th, 2020 insights
work fires

Case in point: To stay ahead of most of the fires, look ahead and watch the trends—but there is more you can do. It’s those time where you need to step back and wonder how did I get here? Here’ an example:

Someone walks into your office with the latest “urgent over important” crisis and dumps it on your desk. Then you grab your helmet and head for the fire pole. At some point after the day is saved and the smoke has cleared, you find yourself asking these three questions.

  1. Why did they come to me instead of solving it themselves? I have smart people on the team. I have “empowered” them. But they still come to me first.
  2. Why was it an emergency? The information is right there. They should have seen it coming.
  3. Why wasn’t the problem prevented in the first place? This isn’t the only time this has come up. Someone should have taken the initiative.

The direct answer to all three of these questions is this: Your process is perfectly tuned to produce the exact results you’re seeing. Your system isn’t broken, it’s just the wrong system.

In most cases, this is solved when leaders use a process that attempts to describe likely scenarios, defines the correct responses, and then lists the people who can take the appropriate actions.

Like this scenario: An important new prospect asks to meet with high level management of your firm. As President, you fly out with the VP of Sales to close the deal. While you’re out of communication, a problem comes up that is going to delay delivery to your biggest client.

Your SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) says:

  1. Operations Manager will determine the length of delay.
  2. Sales will notify the client.
  3. Operations, Quality, and Engineering will consider ramifications and authorize; overtime, alternate process, or outsourcing.
  4. Operations will determine the improved delivery date.
  5. Sales will update the client with the new delivery date.

But this time things got stuck at step 3. This is a holiday weekend coming up and Operations doesn’t want to demand overtime, Quality is wary of the alternate process, and Engineering doesn’t have an approved outsource. Sales is pushing to work the weekend but the Operations Manager doesn’t believe they have the authority to make the call (remember the VP is with you). In the end they all decide to wait until you are available to make the decision.

Before you leap ahead and decide what you would do in this situation, stop and consider what is driving your reaction. What is the main force driving your decision? Is it growing revenue, controlling costs, retaining personnel, etc., etc.

Now, while still keeping your thoughts away from what you would do to “fix” this late delivery, consider what your team’s response would have been if they the same “main force” you are experiencing. You know you have a well-coached team and effective processes when the decisions reached by the team are the same whether you are involved or not. To break the “three question” log jam, address these key components of your business:

  • Is each key accountability “owned” by just one person? If more than one person is accountable, no one is accountable.
  • Are you and your team practicing “good predicting”? This is impossible without the good data, “owned” measurables, consistent weekly review, and shared goals.
  • Are procedures and processes “followed by all”? If your critical processes are ad hoc or “tribal knowledge” they will not be followed by everyone. This will inevitably lead to errors, log jams, and reoccurring problems.

No one is perfect. Your organization will never be perfect. But if your leadership team is strong in the six key business components there will be fewer avoidable fires and a lot more structured growth.