Fighting Fires

Written on Tuesday, May 31st, 2011 at 8:01 pm by Ric
Filed under Sharing Success.

“Proper preparation prevents poor performance.”
– Charlie Batch

“A fire department’s major work is fire prevention and readying itself to respond to emergencies.”
– Daniel Tobin

On the face of it, the two quotes above seem to be talking about two different things. Dig deeper though, and you’ll see that they have the same message: if you prepare well, your job gets easier.

That’s not exactly the way Daniel Tobin put it, but that’s the point I took away from his Small Business CEO Magazine article entitled The Manager as a Firefighter.

“The fires never stop,” Daniel keeps hearing from complaining managers. “We never have time to get any real work done.”

Daniel suggests that “they ought to take time to do some planning, that there may be a way to prevent future fires so that their groups can get back to their ‘real work.’”

The usual reply, unfortunately, is that they don’t have enough time. “We’ve got to put out those fires or we’ll lose everything.”

What’s worse is that this attitude seems to be rewarded. “Employee of the Month” and similar awards usually “recognize people who come to the rescue in an emergency.” There’s nothing wrong about this per se, but Daniel explains that “these companies would be better off giving awards for fire prevention. When a manager’s department is spending a terrific amount of time fighting fires, it’s a sign that something is very wrong.”

Daniel compares this to an actual fire department. When he asked a fire chief how much time they spent fighting fires, the response was this: “If we had to spend 5 percent of our time fighting actual fires, the entire city would be in ashes. The number is probably more like 1 percent, 2 percent tops.”

This brings us back to the second quote above. The bulk of a firefighter’s job isn’t fighting fires and handling emergencies – the most important part of his job is preventing these emergencies from happening in the first place.

A manager’s job isn’t very different. If managers can plan ahead and find ways to prevent their own workplace emergencies, then they have more time to focus on more important things, like increasing revenue, reducing costs, and developing other ways to expand business.

Daniel doesn’t give a whole lot of tips on planning ahead, but there’s a wealth of information around on that topic anyway. He does, however, share a couple of tips to help make fighting workplace fires easier.

His first tip is to “empower employees to learn new skills and to seek their own solutions to problems.” This is like giving your employees fire extinguishers and training them to fight little fires themselves instead of calling you (the fire department) immediately. The less time you spend dealing with these little fires, the more time you have to do some real work.

Daniel second tip is for managers to “thoroughly understand their company’s business processes and methods.” The fire department does this by “studying the city and the businesses within the city so that it knows how the buildings are structured, what kind of work the businesses do, what materials they use and so forth.” The fire department equips itself to fight fires, not just with their trucks and hoses, but with their knowledge about the city and its structures.

This improved ability to fight fires is only one aspect of knowing the business though. What’s more important for managers is that their understanding of the business allows them to “select the optimal work methods that will prevent fires from breaking out in the first place.”

Ultimately, that’s what we want – we want to prevent fires from breaking out. Sure, “heroics provide great anecdotes for business books,” Daniel says, “but no company can bet its future on the constant heroics of its employees.” A good plan for the road ahead, that’s something your company can bet on.


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