When I taught Total Quality Management, I had Problem Solving Teams run
the following exercise in selected departments. It was a successful way
of finding problem areas for process improvement. This particular exercise
could be applied to any department. I have run it on production lines,
HR, Billing, Shipping & Receiving and many others.
Before I began the exercise I met with the personnel of the selected department.
After describing what I meant by 'fire', I asked them the following question. “For any given week what
percentage of your time is spent putting out fires?” This question
was asked of each individual in the group and I wrote each person’s
answer on a white board. The more emotional said 60% to 70%. Those who
worried someone in the class would think they were complaining, said 5%.
The larger number of the group members thought about it and gave me their
most realistic number.
In none of these question and answer sessions was this number ever less
than 20%! That’s right, 20%. If you are the CFO or someone who pays
the bills and salaries of your organization, this is the place where you
scream in agony and start looking for someone to shoot. Don’t shoot
anyone. It won’t help. You’ll just get new fires.
Here’s how the exercise is run. Each of the participating employees
was given the following items at the start: a categorized Talley Sheet
to log events, a stop watch and a little fireman’s hat I bought
at a specialty store. They were given the following instructions. Every
time you have to handle an event that does not relate to the production
of those things you were hired to handle, start the stopwatch. The fireman’s
hat was there simply to remind the person to participate in the exercise.
The employee wrote a brief description of the ‘Fire’; log
the time it started and the time they put it out or simply dropped it.
Usually I asked for categories of ‘Fires’ from the students
or provided them with a canned list. The list included things like: phone
calls not related to job, requests to solve problems not related to the
employees work, deliverables promised but not delivered, meetings that
they should not have attended or that wallowed in irrelevancies, and on and on.
You’ve probably added ten categories of your own. The fireman’s
hat was put up in their work area to remind them that the exercise was
on going. Yes, it was necessary to go around and get people to be disciplined
about taking data. It was necessary to be very firm and persuasive about it.
Usually I ran the exercise for one or two weeks. The rule is; be sure you
get sufficient data that if you present your findings to management it
is statistically convincing. At the end of the exercise period, the group
would meet and do *Pareto charts of their findings. Then they analyzed
and put dollar values (including overhead) of the lost time for every
category of ‘Fire’. I would have them do the numbers for the
two-week period, a quarter and a year. To say that the numbers were an
eye opener is a vast understatement.
People are smarter than one thinks. They asked if everyone is averaging
the same amount of lost time, what are the numbers for the whole company
for a year. The number is always in millions. That’s correct, millions.
Fires are upsetting. Putting out fires at work means jobs you were supposed
to be doing are not getting done, schedules are being delayed, you being
so frustrated by the foolishness of it all that you snap at your co-workers,
who then go off and snap at everyone else.
Just as a fire in a community or forest can affect many lives, so can a
fire at work. If you wanted to be a fireman, you’d be out riding
a bright red truck and sliding down poles. The best way to fight fire
is prevention. Ferret out every possible source and get rid of it. And
finally, if nothing else works shoot the idiots who start them.