Why Your Employees Are Always Putting Out Fires
Company leaders, consider the following questions: How many surprises have you dealt with this week? How many customer relationships have had to be rescued or late orders escalated? How many apologies delivered, numbers explained, or presentations redone?
Every leader I know wrestles with these and other crises as a matter of routine. Yet leaders also recognize that running a business through constant firefighting puts them at risk of stressed-out employees, customer defections, a damaged brand, and safety or ethics catastrophes.
On closer inspection, the vast majority of fires are preventable. They are essentially “rework” — the added effort and cost required because something was not
How did we get to this point, where firefighting is standard operating procedure?
“Create constancy of purpose.” Without a sense of the bigger picture — what you are trying to accomplish and why it matters — people naturally default to fixing problems. Unfortunately, this approach never creates the level of delight or innovation that wins you customers for life. Deming encouraged managers to focus explicitly on a mission and longer-term goals to counter-balance the pull of immediate issues. This means defining clearly what you are promising to your customers, so employees know what they should strive to deliver. Even in highly dynamic environments, such a meaningful mission can provide constancy while tactics and strategies shift.
“Cease dependence on inspection to achieve quality.” Most leaders these days strive to hire talented people and let them find their own way to a goal. Then, confronted with haphazard approaches, poor coordination, and embarrassing snafus, leaders gradually end up adding checkpoints, approvals, and red tape. Neither extreme is ideal. Deming’s approach to processes focused on building quality in from the start — reducing reliance on inspection and even individual performance reviews. Even for highly professional work, developing a few simple, repeatable processes for doing things right the first time can drastically increase your quality output.
“Institute leadership.” Once your team knows the goal and invests in repeatable processes, the next challenge is to avoid management “tampering.” Managers naturally want to act swiftly to address breakdowns — changing personnel, adding checkpoints, or escalating issues. Yet, as Deming put it in Out of the Crisis, “No amount of skill or pride in workmanship can overcome fundamental faults in the system.” Poorly thought-out quick fixes consume staff time, leaving them less time for the core work and, often, confused about expectations. Instead, Deming insisted that managers develop “profound knowledge” of their work processes and the root causes of any issues before making any changes.
“Drive out fear.” Deming highlighted the reactive behavior caused by a culture of fear. People generate fewer creative solutions and are more likely to gravitate to the familiar, cut corners, or hide data. These days, reactivity can also be caused by adrenalin, the thrill of the deadline. This can create an addiction to excitement and a focus on finding fires to fight — especially if the people who do so are rewarded by management. To help your organization sustain focus and build for the long term, Deming advised, “The leader, instead of being a judge, will be a colleague, counseling and leading his people on a day-to-day basis, learning from them and with them.”
Yes, some fires are urgent. But if you can take the time to provide clear direction; design simple, empowering processes; pause to get data before initiating change; and learn from teams who deliver without heroics, you will find your employees feel even more motivated and engaged.
Have a great day!