‘Firefighters’ at Work, Friend or Foe?
Authors Note: This post is strictly about business work environments and should not be confused with the true firefighters who bravely put their life on the line in their professional line of work week in and week out.
So it is just another day at work… then someone comes into your work area and says Project X just hit a major snag or the production line went down again, or a major customer calls in threatening to cancel the rest of the year’s orders due to quality issues. What do you do next?
If you are like many people in charge, you call your best ‘firefighting team’ into action. But have you ever wondered or said to yourself, “How many times have I had to use teams in the past few weeks or months to ‘resolve’ issues”? Have the events been new each time, or are the ‘firefighters’ returning to the same fire that continues to smolder long after the team has left the scene? Were there any follow-up activities created and documented to ensure the same problem would not be repeating itself soon after the fire was doused? Did you pick the right people for the job in the first place? What is the level of authority they have to not only ‘douse the flames’ but complete follow-up activities to ensure it is very unlikely the same problem will occur again?
Whatever the type of business you are in, inevitably it will have smoke leading to flames over one issue or another. That is just part of running a business. However, the time between fires, or time between business interruptions should be a key data point to identify trends and highly reactive business environments. Typically, the more reactive a business environment is, the higher the anxiety levels are, which negatively affect employee performance. Conversely, pro-active environments have much lower levels of anxiety and generally more content employees.
What does one do? First, identify if the time between business interruptions is acceptable. If not, then start investigating what is and is not working properly to achieve a zero target of reoccurrence. One area of interest I have noticed is whenever the same ‘firefighters’ are being rewarded time after time, and the fires continue, you may have a situation where the firefighters are no longer being vigilant to look forward and prevent recurring issues. Since they know they will be called on again and rewarded to knock down the repetitive flames, fame and rewards are not a bad gig if you can get the work. If this sounds like your place of business, then change is needed as occasionally one of the good guys likes the ‘hero’ side a bit too much and may actually be setting the business up for quick fix failures. If it can happen in real life with professional firefighters, why do you think your business is immune to the draw of the spotlight when the fire is out?
In summary, troubleshooting or firefighting is a part of most every business. All firefighters are not bad. Review your own situation and look for similar recurring issues with a short time between business interruptions as an area of interest. Complete an investigation of what went well, lessons learned, and retrain the employees to better handle the next situation so the business keeps moving towards a pro-active environment. Your highly regarded employees should be able to stay on their course more often as well when they are not randomly being redirected from their original work assignments.
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