Call firefighting and band-aids what they are – but do them in a structured way

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on September 19, 2011 · 9 comments


Sometimes, firefighting is the right answer. Once the fire is burning, whether figuratively or literally, you must put it out. There’s nothing wrong with this. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be a reactive, firefighting organization in a structured way.

What would you structure in this reactive mode?

First, you would get a little definition around which fires you’re going to fight. If you’re in this mode, by definition there are going to be more fires than you have time to fight. So why not have a little definition around which ones you’re going to fight, and which ones you aren’t.

Second, you can still fight them in a structured way. No, you aren’t going to do projects. But you can still employ simple but effective methods such as the 5 whys to get a little better answers to why these fires exist.

Third, you structure some ground rules around what are appropriate solutions. For example, when you’re in firefighting mode, you don’t develop solutions that require a project team to focus on development of perfection over the next 18 months. You put something quick in place that will hold for a while, and then move onto the next fire. Without ground rules, you can burn a lot of calories arguing being the quick solution and the “right” solution.

What’s important is that you call it firefighting mode. And if you’re only putting bandaids on things, then that’s what you call them. This prevents this temporary condition from becoming the permanent mode of operation.

Mark Graban, author of Lean Hospitals, has a perspective on firefighting from his work with hospitals:

Fire fighting is a common mode of operation for hospital leaders and staff members. Hospitals often react when the “fire” has harmed somebody, but hospitals need to also focus on root cause analysis for “near fires,” such as the incorrect medication ALMOST getting to a patient. These near fires should also be followed with efforts to prevent reoccurrence, as the same cause might, next time, burn the proverbial house down, harming or killing a patient.

There is nothing inherently wrong with firefighting mode. If there are fires, it is wise to put them out. It carries such a negative stigma because too many companies do nothing but firefight, which leads to stagnation. Firefighting has a time, and a place, and a name…and a right way and wrong way to engage in it.

1 Karen Wilhelm September 19, 2011 at 9:13 am

Firefighting may soon change its definition:
Firefighters are using lean to do the job better. Any process can be improved – even firefighting when it’s absolutely the only answer.

2 Mark Graban September 19, 2011 at 2:16 pm

Thanks for the post and the mention. I’ve been corrected before that the professional firefighters spend much more time on public education and efforts to prevent fires. Maybe the business world shouldn’t besmirch their name by using “firefighting” as a synonym for reactive problem solving? 🙂

3 Mark Graban September 19, 2011 at 2:19 pm

And when I worked at J&J, they frowned on us saying “Band-Aiding a process” because it was a brand name… saying “adhesive bandage a process” doesn’t have a good ring to it.

4 Jamie Flinchbaugh September 19, 2011 at 6:15 pm

Yes, firefighting is an unfortunate analogy. It is truly a worldwide and longstanding analogy, so I’m not going to work much on changing it. In the end, you could argue that firefighters most important work is proactive. Once we’re actually fighting a fire, we’ve already lost to some degree.

5 Mark Graban September 19, 2011 at 6:40 pm

Yeah, not blaming you for the term, Jamie. It is what it is. Just an interesting analogy to talk about, on many levels.

6 Jamie Flinchbaugh September 19, 2011 at 6:43 pm

Yes it is. It’s what we think of and certainly what we see of firefighting. And being proactive is still a relatively new thing when it comes to fire prevention.

7 Brian Buck September 20, 2011 at 11:32 am

I think an important step in the “structure” is to ensure there is time to reflect on the fires. You may create a firefighting system but unless you pause every so often to see if conditions change that would allow you to fix the root causes of those you decided to firefight. Without this reflection, an org will be fighting the same fires for years and culturally becomes how “things are done around here”.

8 Deepika A.S September 23, 2011 at 10:26 am

One should be “pro-active” than being “reactive”.

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