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Many business organizations suffer from chronic firefighting. The tedious task of handling problem after problem daily without preventing them from happening.

It is especially companies with complex R&D and manufacturing processes that are prone to destructive firefighting. Managers and engineers rush from task to task, not completing one before another interrupts them. Serious problem-solving effort degenerate into quick-and-dirty patching. Productivity suffers. Managing becomes a constant juggling act of deciding where to allocate overworked people and which incipient crisis to ignore for the moment.

I see it time and time again. As problems arise – from customer’s complaints, special orders, quality lapses and supplier difficulties – they are sent into a queue until an engineer has time to work on them.

As engineers finish a problem, they report to a manager who presides over the queue, deciding which problems are the most urgent and who should solve each one. And as the queue becomes longer, forcing engineers to work 70+ hours a week to meet deadlines, it causes more errors in the short run and declines in effectiveness in the long run. This practice leads to delays, work-arounds, and poor technical decisions, all of which requires catch-up work later.

This is classic firefighting.

You are caught up in a vicious circle. The constant need to do firefighting doesn’t leave you any time to avoid these fires in the first place. That is the paradox.

Important but not urgent vs. urgent but not important

Usually, everybody can see when a team is drowning in critical incidents. But what is often not seen are all the important tasks being postponed because of those urgent fixes. To raise the urgency of the important things you need to prevent fires in the first place.

 

No matter how bad your critical incidents are flooding your schedule, it’s important to do at least a “what if”-planning like:

  • What would you do if there was enough time?
  • What is the most important – not the most critical – thing?
  • What needs to be addressed?

Find a gap in your firefighting schedule to come to a solution that will prevent the fire from flaring up again.

When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.

There is a way. You can in fact prevent fires from happening. Even though you seem to be stuck in a downward spiral and your team is desperate, there is a way out. In fact, there are several.

Tactical methods can be put into effect quickly without making high-level policy changes:

  1. Adding temporary problem solvers to the team
  2. Shut down operations until problems are solved and there is a stable baseline for detecting and solving additional problems

Both are proven methods.

Strategic approaches to firefighting take longer time to implement, but they pay off across a range of projects and over long periods. These include changing design strategies or even outsource some parts of the design.

The best time to deal with a problem is before you are forced to and before the business experiences a negative impact. That is why it is worth considering applying cultural changes.

Changes that require shifts in the mind-set of the whole organization and in the behavior of senior managers. Don’t tolerate problem-patching, don’t push to meet deadlines at all costs and most importantly of all, don’t reward firefighting.

Firefighting is one of those organizational diseases that is hard to cure. Start by ensuring against them or at least reducing the risk of having them happening again.

About the author

Leon Lauritsen

Leon has worked with multiple IT systems from ERP to BI and PLM. His experience ranges all the way from programming to business consulting, project management and business development. Leon started his career in IT development and has further earned a diploma in IT and Economics at Copenhagen Business School and an Executive MBA at Henley Management College.  

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