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.


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Management Improvement Carnival #144 » Curious Cat Management Improvement Blog
October 2, 2011 at 10:45 pm

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