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Fire Fighting or Fire Prevention?
You get more of what you celebrate and reward!
It was cold and dark in the bedroom. The power had been out for over 30 hours, so the snow and freezing temperatures outside had caused the house to cool to a frigid 45 degrees. Fortunately, a couple layers of clothing and several extra blankets had kept my bed nice and toasty.
My watch told me it was 4 AM. Without power or internet, I wouldn’t have to get up and work anytime soon, which was perfectly fine with me. I had no desire to crawl out of my cozy cocoon and do anything in our cold, dark house, so I rolled over and... shit. There it was again. That high-pitched BEEP. I was hoping it was just part of a bad dream.
I waited another couple minutes, just in case my tinnitus was playing tricks on me. BEEP! Damn it. Why does it always happen in the middle of the night? I groaned as I crawled out of bed. I headed downstairs, grabbed a step stool and a 9-volt battery, and went in search of that distant, haunting sound.
When there’s smoke…
We have smoke detectors all over our house – several on each of the three floors – and they are all wired together. When one goes off, they ALL go off. In a big house, that can very literally be a life saver! The smoke detectors are also hooked up to the electricity, so it takes a long time for their back-up batteries to drain. But they do eventually drain and with the power out, they had been running on batteries alone for quite a while. I ended up having to change the batteries in two smoke detectors that night but luckily the second one started beeping before I crawled back into my warm bed. Better to deal with the frigid temps all at once!
I hear plenty of managers at work talking about the need to get away from “fire fighting.” If you’ve been around business at all, you’ll know they’re not talking about actually fighting real fires – they’re talking about fixing problems that have popped up and become emergencies. Occasionally an emergency will become a “5 alarm fire,” requiring resources to be pulled from lots of other areas to resolve the problem. Needless to say, it’s hard to work on projects when you're dealing with unplanned problems.
In my home, I’ve never had to fight an actual fire – but not because I keep fresh batteries in our smoke detectors. Smoke detectors aren’t about fire prevention, they’re about saving lives in the event that you’ve failed to prevent a fire. Your house might burn down, but hopefully you’ll be able to get your family and your pets to safety first.
…it’s already too late!
Where I work, we measure lots of stuff. We probably have 100 metrics and measures that are gathered and reported all over the place. The problem? Most of them qualify as smoke detectors. They let us know there's an emergency after the fire’s already burning. Is it any wonder we spend so much time in “firefighting mode?”
To prevent fires in my home, I don’t rely on smoke detectors because that’s NOT what they’re for. We do things like making sure candles are in safe locations and aren’t left burning when no one’s around or when we’re sleeping. We ensure electrical cords are in good working condition and if anything unusual happens with anything electrical, we have it checked out. We are careful with the natural gas, the propane grill, and anything else that could possibly cause a fire.
If you want to get out of “firefighting mode” at work, you need to think about it like that. You need to think about doing things that prevent the problems in the first place. You need to focus on “fire prevention.”
We reward the wrong things.
And you know what? Focusing on “fire prevention” IS NOT A SECRET! In fact, when you read that last paragraph, you probably thought, “No shit, Sherlock.” Anyone who has worked anywhere for any length of time understands the concept. It’s a true no-brainer for most people.
Unfortunately, knowing it and doing it are two very different things.
Doing “fire prevention” on your job is pretty straight-forward:
Develop good standardized processes.
Measure different steps or phases in the process and set up “red flags” to tell you when the process isn’t going as expected.
Have planned responses to those early indicators, which must include capturing data to allow analysis of what when wrong and how to prevent it from happening in the future.
Focus on continuous process improvement.
But here’s the real problem in most organizations: Fire prevention isn’t rewarded.
Fire prevention isn’t sexy or exciting and it’s hard to quantify. How many fires have we prevented in our home? All of them! But how many is that, exactly? In business, it’s hard to tell if you prevented lots of problems or if your job is just easy and you don’t have much to do.
Fight the proverbial fire at work and you can come out looking like a hero. People get awards for working night and day to address the crisis. They get accolades, bonuses, and even promotions. But the team that focused on prevention and never had a crisis? They rarely get noticed – unless some executive says, “Must be nice and easy working in that department. Nothing is ever going on over there.”
Management doesn’t usually notice fire prevention, so it rarely gets rewarded. And if you’re not rewarding the behavior your organization really needs, is it really any wonder that most people don’t focus on it? Your challenge is to NOT be like most people. Don’t try to fire-fight your way to fame and power. Choose the better path.
Toot your own horn.
Relaxed Leaders aren’t focused on winning awards and receiving accolades – but we don’t shun them either. Awards and accolades bring visibility, so if we receive them, it shines a spotlight on the right way to operate. It shows people that there is a better way to lead. It amplifies the great “fire prevention” work you and your team are doing and can help start to change what gets rewarded.
As you’re improving your processes and putting preventive metrics in place, think about how you can use those metrics to highlight the importance of prevention. Use data from past “fires” to show the value of avoiding those emergencies. Don’t be afraid to say, “We addressed five issues this week – but we caught them early in the process and were able to quickly mitigate them. If left unchecked, any one of them could’ve ended up like ‘past fire XYZ,’ which cost the organization $XXXXX.”
Yes, people might argue that it’s theoretical savings or “cost avoidance” or whatever. If that happens, simply ask, “Are you suggesting we ignore the warning signs and let these things become emergencies?” No one will argue for that.
It might feel like “tooting your own horn” but you need to do it to promote the value and importance of preventing problems instead of just getting good at fixing them.
Think about it this way: If you’re fixing a problem, it means you’ve failed to provide the value you promised. Break/fix is what’s known as a “failure stream” and Relaxed Leaders don’t optimize failure streams. Relaxed Leaders optimize the value stream and starve the failure stream in the process. And if we want our organizations to do the same thing, we need to find a way to shine a spotlight on these boring, un-sexy, best practices!
Take a look at your processes – your entire workflow – and identify at what step you can first spot “warning signs.” Don’t just measure outcomes because then it’s too late. Measure parts of the process – set up “red flags” as early as possible – and then track what happens. If the number of “fires” goes down, then share your results, giving credit to the appropriate prevention measures, and keeping looking for more “fire prevention” tactics!