Stop Putting Out Fires (Shoot the Idiots Who Start Them)

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.

Typically I would run 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.

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