Out of Crisis – Stop Fighting Fires

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What if being in chaos was optional?

What if crisis, or chaos, or “firefighting,” or feeling behind schedule, behind the press of constantly emerging problems, could be stopped?

It can.  It’s simple.  It’s not easy.  Here are your three steps to stop fighting fires — and getting control, confidence, and clarity.

“Firefighting syndrome” is a chronic problem in American businesses. As Roger Bohn and Ramchandran Jaikumar put it in their 2000 paper “Firefighting by Knowledge Workers,” firms exhibit “firefighting syndrome” when they are chronically doing three or more of these:

  • Too many problems. Not enough time to solve them all.
  • Incomplete solutions. Some problems are “patched” rather than solved.
  • Recurring and cascading problems. Badly solved problems reemerge.
  • Urgency supersedes importance. Long-range activities are interrupted or deferred.
  • Preemption of one problem solving effort by another, even more urgent one.
  • Performance drop. The organization’s output of products and services suffers.

I frequently see all six.  I also exhibit several.

Here’s how I get myself out of this, and get my clients out — and how you can get out too.  The three steps are:

  1. Log the fires
  2. Analyze them for root causes
  3. Fix the systems that generate fires

Pareto to the Rescue

Start with the humble log.  Seriously.  Writing down your crises and fires — as they occur — will take you barely any time, and provides amazing value.

In each case everybody insisted that “there was no pattern” and the crises were all astonishing visitations from higher planes — neither controllable nor truly understandable.

This mindset makes crises become chronic.

In reality, 80% of your crises will be caused by 20% of your causes.  (This is the Pareto Principle or the “80-20 Rule” — frequently, 80% of effects are driven by 20% of causes.)  You’ll never spot them until you patiently, fire by fire, disaster by disaster, crisis after crisis, log them for later analysis.

A Better Mindset

Your mindset is crucial for overcoming firefighting syndrome.

If you resist logging your fires, you have a mindset that is helping foster firefighting.

The more you believe that fires can neither be predicted nor prevented, the more true you make it — because you will overlook chances to predict and prevent them.

Even if you only have 5% influence on fires, devote 95% focus on your 5% contribution.

And anybody at any level of an organization can keep a log and do some analysis.  All it takes is a brain, and a pen and paper.

If it’s worth complaining about, it’s worth logging.  The process of logging fires creates emotional distance and gives you the detachment you’ll need for later stages.

Oh, and you cannot, must not, be looking for blame.  Blame and shame will create fear — nobody will be willing to be fully candid when they’re afraid.

That’s why the First Rule of Quality is “Drive out fear.”  Look only for what went wrong — never for who was wrong.

Log and Analyze

Once you have a log, you can start to analyze.

Why are shipments going out late? Why are projects delayed? Why are our customers returning products? Why are former employees posting negative reviews on glass door?

This is the tedious part of the exercise.  For each entry in the log, for each instance of a crisis, take the time to dig in and look for a cause, and the cause behind the cause. Don’t look for patterns yet. Let each entry be unique.

And be transparent. If you’re contributing, admit it.

Find the Pattern

One cause doesn’t make a pattern.  Look for groups of causes that are similar.

For one client, we found that 84% of crises were caused by the same four things.

For another client, over 80% were caused by just two things.

As the military saying goes, “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action.”

As it turns out, there aren’t all that many reasons why shipments go out late, or projects get delayed, or customers return products. And thanks to Pareto, you will find that 80% of returned orders are for a small subset of products, and 80% of late shipments are caused by a handful of reasons, and so on.

Use the “Five Whys” of the Toyota Way.  To use a classic example:

  • A crisis arises because a critical server went down.
  • Why did the server go down? Because buggy code was uploaded to it.
  • Why was buggy code uploaded? Because a developer didn’t follow the quality process.
  • Why didn’t he? Because the developer is new and wasn’t trained on that process.
  • Why wasn’t he trained? Because his boss doesn’t believe in training.

Beware of “magical thinking” during the Five Whys process — you’re looking for causes that are realistic.

Root cause analysis is a great group activity — it allows people to stand shoulder to shoulder, looking at the problem – instead of standing nose to nose, blaming each other. As a leader, be the first to volunteer your own errors during root cause analysis.

In the above example, if you are in charge of training new developers, you should volunteer that “my group failed to train the developer.” If you were the boss didn’t insist that your new developer get training, you should volunteer that “I didn’t require him to take quality training before pushing code into production.”

I promise you, other people in the room are already thinking about your role in creating the crisis. When you say it before they do, you reduce tension, you show yourself to have strong character, and you inspire them to admit to their own contribution to creating the crisis.

This helps you as a leader to Drive Out Fear.

Get Up Stream

Everything is a system — some just aren’t documented.  Your firefighting is ultimately part of a system.  Once the pattern has emerged, you can identify the systemic causes, stop fighting fires, and create long term solutions.

Your next step should be, insert a fix at each level of the Five Whys analysis.

Using the same example:

  • Reboot and roll back the change to the critical server
  • Fix the buggy code
  • Teach the developer the quality process
  • Add mandatory training for new-hire developers
  • Have a Serious Talk with the boss who didn’t believe in training

Notice there is no step labelled “fire the bad person” — you should assume there are no bad people, only systems that need improvement.

Got a problem you can’t analyze, or a log of fires with no clear pattern? Contact me and I’ll lend you a hand.

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