Get Out of Firefighting Mode by Selecting New Heroes

by | Apr 15, 2018 | People Development | 0 comments

“We’re stuck in firefighting mode” is a phrase I’ve heard and read a whole bunch! It’s quite a common feeling and many leaders practicing Lean are searching for a way to move out of that mode and into fire prevention.

Firefighting versus Fire Prevention in Lean

Firefighting happens when a problem rages to be something whose symptoms must be addressed now. Someone – or maybe even several people – needs to stop what they’re doing to address the issue and put out the fire. It’s a top priority that if not handled urgently will have a big negative consequence (like a major customer failure) or it will grow and create an even bigger problem (like continuing to fall behind over hours or days until multiple customers are impacted).

Fire prevention, on the other hand, is proactive scientific problem solving and process improvement. It happens at the slightest smell of smoke or just at the observation of a potential fire hazard. It happens using gap analysis of the actual versus expected. It is ingrained as continuous improvement – daily.

The Secret Joys of Firefighting

I was partnering with Robert, a plant manager who was leading his team through a Lean transformation. He confided in me something he hadn’t told anyone else.

Firefighting mode doesn't seem fun, but can have secret joys“Firefighting is my favorite part of the day,” he said. “When I put out a fire to help my team solve something urgent, I go home feeling like I made a difference – like I was useful. And I’m scared that if we do all of this continuous improvement and reduce the number of fires then I won’t like my job anymore.”

Robert’s vulnerability in sharing his secret joys of firefighting and his fears of moving to fire prevention gave me tremendous insight into some of his trepidation with teaching and practicing PDSA problem-solving in his plant. And also gave me the permission and the awareness I needed to help him through his fears.

Over time Robert and his team worked to create a safe environment for problem raising, experimentation, and problem solving. They aligned their scoreboard to the ideas of value-creation and focused on systematically addressing the gaps and problems holding them back – with a focus on the process. The number of fires reduced dramatically. They were used to having a 2-3 fires a day and a couple of years later were experiencing at most one a month.

I asked Rob if his fears had materialized – did he still like his job as much as he used to now that he wasn’t firefighting. His answer?

“I love my job more than I ever have in my career! The time I used to spend firefighting I now spend connecting with team members and helping them in their professional and personal lives. I go home not just knowing I made a difference in their work, but in their lives. I go home feeling fulfilled and it has actually helped me be happier in my life as well. Life Changing!”

You – or others in your organization – may have some secret joys of firefighting or secret fears of moving to fire prevention. Understanding those fears helps you overcome them.

How to Move from Firefighting Mode to Fire Prevention

There is no one path that everyone needs to follow to make this shift. It’s also not an easy one-dimensional task. You need things like:
• Process stability
• Problem-solving methodology
• Problem-solving skill development through practice
• Safe environment for experimentation and problem solving
• Communication & feedback loops
• Employee engagement at the gemba
• A long-term focus
• Recognition aligned with the future state you desire (in other words, select new heroes)

The long-term cultural and systematic change from firefighting to fire prevention take time and effort. But there is one thing you, regardless of your role and influence in the organization, can change right now: Select New Heroes.

Traditional Heroes at Work

I once worked with a department that ran an employee peer recognition program. The nominations sounded something like this:

  • Johnny worked 20 hours straight to make sure we hit a deadline for a customer
  • Sandra stepped out of her normal role to help us redo a job that was done wrong so we could fix it same-day for the customer and turn it in to a positive experience after the failure
  • Greg worked 6 days a week for 6 weeks while we were short-staffed until a new employee could be hired
  • We were late on a job and so it didn’t go out on the normal delivery run. Peter got in his personal vehicle and drove three hours to deliver the job to the customer so we wouldn’t be late to the customer

These are what I call Hero actions, and we were great at recognizing them.

Selecting New Heroes in Lean

The thing about Lean, though, is that to really create a Process + Results environment of continuous improvement, we have to select new heroes.

The new heroes are the people who follow process and adhere to the components of their standard work.

The people who make improvements in their work.

The people who make suggestions to help improve process that will create more value for customers.

The people who learn from failure.

The people who celebrate the process – not just the results.

The people who share and make learning part of the system instead of just tribal knowledge.

The people who work to prevent future failures (fire prevention) rather than just jumping from one failure-containment to another (firefighting).


See how these are different than that first list of heroes?

When we reward firefighting, we get more firefighting.

When we reward fire prevention, we get more fire prevention.

Moving from firefighting to fire-prevention isn’t a one-step transformation. We have to learn how to find root causes and problem solve using iteration and scientific methods.

We also have to change who we recognize and reward as the heroes in our organization. This isn’t something you can do just once. You have to repeatedly celebrate new heroes to create the habit.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” – Aristotle

Selecting New Heroes is one shift needed to transform from traditional management to effective Lean leadership.

Take Action to Transform to Effective Lean Leadership

Selecting new heroes doesn’t have to be big, formal, HR-developed and approved reward programs. You can do this now in how you recognize and demonstrate gratitude to the people in your span of care – starting today!

Try out an experiment. Over the next week make a note of every bit of recognition or gratitude you give out. And then evaluate it to learn what kind of heroes you’re currently selecting – fire prevention or firefighting?

Then let me know in the comments how you did – I’d love to hear!

And don’t forget to download a FREE PDF to assess and track your improvement in fifteen Process + Results Lean Leadership areas!

Meet Jamie

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I’m a recovering Command-and-Control Manager who’s now on a mission to make the world of work more human. With a soft spot in my heart for Ops Managers, this Lean blog gives you the straight talk combining Lean, Leadership, and the real challenges of operations management.