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Stop Extinguishing Fires

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It consumes resources and damages productivity — and it’s unnecessary


Most businesses fight fires, meaning they rush from project to project, barely completing one task before moving on to another. The situation quickly spirals out of control, with managers juggling multiple projects and frantically deciding how to allocate tasks to overworked people. Some projects get a modicum of attention; others are ignored. Problem-solving? What’s problem-solving?

What’s interesting about firefighting, says Roger Bohn, who wrote “Stop Fighting Fires” for the Harvard Business Review, is that it isn’t an irrational response to a high-pressure situation. Instead, it stems from what appears to be a reasonable rule: Investigating and delegating problems is important. Still, firefighting is dangerous, because it’s like sticking a Band-Aid on a wound: It ignores what caused the wound. 

Some companies never fight fires, yet they have just as much work as the rest of us, and just as many constraints on resources. So how do they avoid firefighting? “The short answer is that they have strong problem-solving cultures,” says Bohn. “They don’t tackle a problem unless they’re committed to understanding its root cause and finding a valid solution. They perform triage. They set realistic deadlines. Perhaps most important, they don’t reward firefighting.”

How can we learn to be companies that never fight fires? Transforming a firefighting organization into a problem-solving organization isn’t simple, says Bohn, but it can be done. In this issue of Executive Catalyst, we summarize Bohn’s ideas for putting an end to firefighting — tactically, strategically, and culturally.

Tactical methods


Tactical methods for putting an end to firefighting are generally easy to implement without making policy changes. They can, however, present cultural challenges at U.S. companies.

  • flameHire problem solvers. Have more problems? Get more problem solvers, at least temporarily. A good example of this solution at work is the technology sector, which sends U.S. development engineers to Asian factories when they manufacture a new product. The upside: Problems are caught early, and it’s made clear that after-the-fact patchwork isn’t acceptable. The downside: Temporary workers are only effective when the excess workload is occasional; they may not be familiar with other areas of the company, and moving them away from their “real” jobs may lead to fires in those areas. 
  • Halt your operations. It may seem easier said than done, but companies have shut down operations when problems have gotten out of control. In fact, companies that don’t fight fires do this instinctively during product ramp-up. An example is Hewlett-Packard, which shuts down pilot lines at development centers when a certain number of problems are backlogged. This technique can be very effective, but few companies have the strength to do it.
  • Triage. The triage method, which is borrowed from medicine, regulates entry. In other words, you admit that some problems will be assigned resources and some problems will not be solved. Bohn says this technique is one of the most challenging. “It is much easier to tell people, ‘We’ll get to your problem as soon as we can,’ and delegate it to someone who is overworked, than to say, ‘We’ve decided your problem isn’t critical so we’re not going to fix it,’” he writes. 


Strategic methods for putting an end to firefighting take longer to implement than do tactical methods, but they generally pay off, both in the number of problems solved and the time periods in which problems are solved. 

  • Change your product-design strategies. Manufacturing companies, says Bohn, should increase the “commonality” of designs, both between products and between product generations. That, he notes, reduces the number of design problems, leading to fewer manufacturing problems. As an example, he cites hard-drive companies, which used to have separate teams for separate generations of hard drives. As a result, it wasn’t uncommon for a product’s entire design — down to the screws — to change with each release. Now, teams work on “platforms,” so little changes from generation to generation. As a result, new products are manufactured in almost exactly the same way previous products were, and problems are limited. 
  • Outsource design. This method, says Bohn, doesn’t remove problems, but assigns them to someone else. As an example, he cites the auto industry, which has moved toward “black-box” design. In other words, the auto company specifies the characteristics of a subsystem, such as its size and power requirement, then asks a subcontractor to determine the best way to build the subsystem. The subcontractor, not the design team, deals with the problems.
  • Group problems. Many seemingly diverse problems, says Bohn, are really alike. When possible, group problems together, determine the underlying causes, and address them together. As an example, Bohn points to the semiconductor industry, which discovered that circuits were damaging easily. The underlying cause: contamination from employees bringing particles into clean manufacturing rooms. Semiconductor companies implemented dress codes and no-makeup policies, and the problems were solved. This method of putting an end to firefighting isn’t easy, but is one of the best, says Bohn.


  • Use learning lines. In the manufacturing industry, a learning line is a production line that is run using standard materials that create real products, with the goal of solving problems. These lines root out problems, such as bad materials, defective machines, and careless operators. Their performance is often the best in the factory, because problems are rapidly detected and solved, often through innovations. Other companies, say Bohn, should consider creating their own “learning lines,” or practice labs. 
  • Create problem solvers. As we’ve seen, Bohn recommends hiring more problem solvers, but problem solvers can also be created. As an example, he points to the total quality management (TQM) movement, which has helped train non-engineers to solve simple engineering problems. By letting less-skilled resources solve mundane problems, says Bohn, you free more-skilled resources to handle the truly difficult problems.


Unlike tactical and strategic methods for putting an end to firefighting, cultural methods require shifts in the mindset of the whole organization — including in the behavior of senior managers. 

Our one-day Accountability Mirror workshop is an intensive, interactive workshop that teaches individuals and teams strategies for immediately reaching a higher level of performance. When the accountability workshop principles are embraced and put into everyday practice, they have the power to dramatically transform an entire organization.

  • Don't accept patching. Extra work creates pressure to begin firefighting, and firefighting often leads to patches instead of real solutions. Bohn recommends training people to recognize patching and the consequences (that hasty solutions will come back and bite). “Enforcing it requires support at all levels of management,” he says.
  • Don't push to meet deadlines at all costs. While deadlines are important, pushing to meet them at all costs leads to firefighting. As a result, Bohn recommends being flexible. “Measure development projects by the number of outstanding problems,” he says. “If this list stays the same or grows for more than a month after a product introduction, the organization is in firefighting mode.”
  • Don't reward firefighting. If a company’s reward system favors firefighters, says Bohn, a vicious firefighting cycle will begin. The solution — don’t reward firefighting — seems simple. In reality, says Bohn, the corporate hero is usually the one who puts out the biggest fires. “But where were these heroes when the problems started?” writes Bohn. “Why didn’t they intervene sooner, before the problems grew so big? Companies should reward managers who don’t have a lot of fires to put out and who practice long-term prevention and systematic problem-solving.” 

The corporate hero is usually the one who puts out the biggest fires. But where were these heroes when the problems started? Why didn’t they intervene sooner, before the problems grew so big? 


You may recall that NASA's Mars Climate Orbiter was lost in space because engineers failed to make a simple conversion from English units to metric — but you probably didn’t attribute the mistake to firefighting. That’s because the simple explanation for the crash masks a more complex underlying problem, says Bohn. “According to a NASA report published shortly before the crash, the subcontractor staff early in the project was smaller than planned,” he writes. “This led to delays, workarounds, and poor technical decisions, all of which required catch-up work later. … Engineers worked 70-hour weeks to meet deadlines, causing more errors in the short run and declines in effectiveness in the long run.”


It is much easier to tell people, "We’ll get to your problem as soon as we can," and delegate it to someone who is overworked, than to say, "We’ve decided your problem isn’t critical so we’re not going to fix it.

Are you a victim? 

According to Bohn and his late colleague, Ramchandran Jaikumar, you’re a victim of firefighting if you experience three of the following symptoms.

  • You feel that there isn’t enough time to solve all of the problems that arise.
  • The problems you do address are generally patched, not solved.
  • Incomplete solutions cause old problems to reappear, sometimes creating new problems.
  • Long-term activities, such as developing new processes, are repeatedly interrupted because urgent problems must be solved.
  • Many problems become crises that require heroic efforts to solve.
  • Performance suffers because problems are solved inadequately.

who fights the most fires?


Companies with complex research-and-development operations and manufacturing processes are particularly prone to firefighting, says Bohn. “Managers and engineers rush from task to task, not completing one before another interrupts them,” he says. “Serious problem-solving efforts degenerate into quick-and-dirty patching.”


do americans like fires?


In a 1981 Harvard Business Review article, “Why Japanese Factories Work,” Robert Hayes hypothesized that American factories are more chaotic than Japanese factories because Americans are culturally trained to enjoy firefighting. “American managers actually enjoy crises,” he wrote. “They often get their greatest personal satisfaction, the most recognition, and their biggest rewards from solving crises. Crises are part of what makes work fun. To Japanese managers, however, a crisis is evidence of failure.”



While deadlines are important, pushing to meet them at all costs leads to firefighting.


Our take


The most effective companies empower employees at all levels to make decisions and take action, because this encourages a sense of personal ownership. Zappos is a great example.


Empowerment starts with accountability. Most attempts to promote accountability within an organization, however, focus exclusively on external behavior and results. To achieve true accountability, it is essential to practice it internally. In fact, 90 percent of an individual's performance is actually driven by his or her thoughts and moods. Further, each employee needs to focus on holding himself/herself accountable before holding others accountable. When this happens, it powerfully transforms the culture of an entire organization. 





Photo Credits: aussiegall and AJ Batac via Compfight cc


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