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How to move from firefighting to fire prevention

fire hydrant

Are you and your employees stuck in a vicious circle of firefighting? Elizabeth Doty argues in Strategy+Business that most fires are preventable, and quotes some tried-and-tested approaches.

Workers’ compensation business illustrates the cycle of rework – and more rework – that comes from not doing jobs right first time. Despite knowing that legal processes and costs could be slashed by contacting workers within 24 hours of injury, staff were too busy to do so.

The reason? They were handling previous claims for which they had missed the 24-hour opportunity. As a result, 80% of new claims were also destined to take the more expensive and time-consuming route through court.

Rework accounts for 15-20% of revenue in manufacturing firms and 30-35% in service companies, according to 2010 estimates quoted from the Juran Institute.

Aside from costs of this kind, constant crisis management leads to employee stress, loss of customers and damaged reputations. It can also be the root of ethical or safety disasters.

Doty finds answers to breaking the cycle in a book by W. Edwards Deming: Out of the Crisis, published in 1982. Widely acknowledged as the leading thinker in the field of quality, Deming proposed 14 practices for achieving total quality management. Doty highlights four which are particularly relevant to avoiding the need for firefighting.

1) Create constancy of purpose. Make sure your managers and staff are clear on your company’s mission, its long-term objectives and what you are promising customers. This is a key to employee fulfilment, innovative approaches and customer loyalty. It should remain your focus, however much your circumstances and strategies change. Avoid a constant problem-fixing mentality.

2) Cease dependence on inspection to achieve quality. Neither complete freedom for employees to go their own way, nor imposition of checks, approval procedures and other bureaucracy to catch their mistakes is ideal. Instead, set up some straightforward, repeatable processes that remove the need for inspection and rework in the first place.

3) Institute leadership. Having established your team-wide mission focus and right-first-time processes, don’t rush to make changes if things go wrong. Anything you do as a quick fix risks swallowing up staff time and causing confusion. Look deeply, find the root of the problem and then design out that fundamental fault in the system.

4) Drive out fear. A culture of fear discourages creativity and leads employees to cling to old ways. They may take shortcuts or even hide data to avoid being seen to fail. Another outcome can be addiction to the excitement of deadlines – especially if those who habitually save the day by last-minute firefighting gain special management recognition. Change those attitudes by good example.

In his book, Deming advises: “The leader, instead of being a judge, will be a colleague, counselling and leading his people on a day-to-day basis, learning from them and with them.” Doty sees this as an effective style of management that will help you maintain your company’s focus and build for the future.

While recognising that some fires need to be dealt with urgently, Doty believes your leadership will engender a much more motivated and engaged workforce if you:

  • invest time in providing a clear direction,
  • create easy processes to minimise rework,
  • think carefully before tampering, and
  • follow the example of teams which don’t rely on heroics to deliver.

In her conclusion, Doty returns to the case of the workers’ compensation firm. Within a year it managed to break free from its firefighting habit. Instead of 80% of claims ending up in court as costly disputes, only 20% required the involvement of attorneys.

The change was not brought about by technological advances, or by employing new staff with special abilities. It owed much to a simple commitment to set aside two hours of each employee’s time each day for contacting workers who had just been injured. From this flowed a virtuous circle of increasing quality, improved brand reputation, lower stress and reduced costs.

Source Article: Why Your Employees Are Always Putting Out Fires
Author(s): Elizabeth Doty
Publisher: Strategy+Business