Fire-fighting happens in growing organizations of every kind. Success brings sudden spikes in customer demands. New, expanding customer orders quickly outpace the informal methods and systems that worked so well during start-up. Employee time and skills plus business resources like communication systems, vendor relationships, manufacturing tools and quality assurance lag behind growing sales. The results? The company’s ability to respond is stretched to the breaking point. Failures to “get it right the first time, every time” in critical activities like customer service, manufacturing, service delivery and cost control create major operating risks for the growing company.
Fire fighting shows up in different ways as you and key staff rush to figure out band-aid solutions for the crisis of the day including:
- Taking parts needed for tomorrow’s shipments to make up for today’s quality problems and fill gaps in shipping orders.
- Over-scheduling employees in service businesses or pulling them from their regular jobs to handle sudden field service calls to fix mistakes so you don’t lose the customer.
- Over-loading manufacturing equipment with twice the volume it was designed for or skipping critical maintenance needs that leads to sudden breakdowns.
What’s wrong with firefighting? Isn’t crisis management to solve problems and meet business commitments to customers a good capability? Doesn’t it show creativity, knowledge and judgment to find ways to do more with less? Sure it does – and fire fighting is a great capability for a business to have – as a last resort. But at too many growing firms fire fighting becomes the firstresort – not the last. It almost takes the place of routine daily operations for delivering what’s needed to customers.
Think back to recent fire fighting incidents at your firm and ask: Who was rewarded and how? What were the short- and long-term costs to the company?
It’s easy to answer the question about who was rewarded. Usually it’s employees – or maybe you – who are treated as heroes and indispensable to the company…those are compelling recognition and rewards for fire fighting. Plus you get the job done in the end ..at least most of the time. But answers to the second question about the real costs are less clear yet more important including:
- Disrupted production or service schedules for orders in the schedule queue creating more delays and unhappy customers.
- Costly expediting of orders and other tasks to get back on track.
- Snow-balling problems that create even more fire fighting, mistakes and costs in the days to follow.
- Despite best efforts, the fire can still get out of control with damage to overall financial health, employee morale and customer relationships.
Fire fighting also distracts business leaders like you from important jobs critical for sustained success. Strategic jobs like developing new designs, going after new markets, building strategic partnerships or motivating your staff. Plus there are ripple effects from disruption and distraction. And everyone’s stress increases because fire fighting on a regular basis isexhausting.
Instead of fire fighters you need fire marshals. Their job is to look for potential fires and put them out before anything starts – to prevent risky events from occurring rather than just reacting to the bad news. Several techniques to change from fire fighters to fire marshals include:
- Customer service cycle times increasing.
- First-pass yield decreasing while re-work increases.
- Percent of expedited orders growing.
- Mistakes due to poor communication increasing.
- Establish budget pools for fixing the root-causes of failures – not just the symptoms.
- Create a “good tries” book. Reward employees for trying out and learning from improvement ideas - even the ones that didn’t work.
- Make sure rewards target long-term business goals and performance – not short- term band aid solutions.
- Measure and reward performance at all levels of your business; individual and across-function or across-department levels.
Copyright Bret Golann 2012