Stop Fighting Emergency Fires in Five Steps

Whenever I find myself spending most of my day fighting fires, I try to step back and understand why. A great framework that I like to use comes from the Malcolm Baldrige Performance Excellence Program. The firefighting example takes a process through five steps, going from “emergency crisis mode” to “no problem mode.”

The Malcolm Baldrige Performance Excellence program is a government sponsored award that focuses on promoting quality in US organizations. You can see the images below and other great resources on their graphics page.

Step One – Running and Reacting

1The first stage is where most of us start when we think of fighting fires. We react to emergencies that pop up by dropping everything and running to what’s urgent. If this only happens once or twice, then it might not be worth the effort to improve the response. However, the problems that occur frequently or have large impacts are the ones that need to move beyond step one. Focus on those problems for moving them through steps two through five.

Step Two – Running Less and Reacting Quicker

2If fires pop up in the same places frequently, then installing extra hoses in that area can really help. Likewise, if you repeatedly face the same emergency, making additional resources available in those areas can cut down the size or length of an emergency. Taking a few minutes to create simple, small countermeasures makes reacting easier.

Step Three – Response Game Plan

3Once countermeasures are in place, how can we get everyone on the same page? When the next emergency strikes, who contacts whom? Addressing these issues by making a game plan can make the response much more effective. More importantly, getting others involved makes the emergency less dependent on you. If you can’t ever leave the office because you’re the only one that knows how to handle certain problems, then this step can free you from that burden.

Step Four – Automated Response System

4Just like a sprinkler system automatically dousing flames, you can build a system that handles emergencies automatically. Basic computer automation or alerts can take care of many problems that frequently pop up. Emergencies that are more complex may require some IT investment, but many of those solutions are worth the price tag. Conversely, significant investment may not be necessary if a manual response system will work just as well.

Step Five – Innovate Emergencies Away

5This final step is not “brainstorm how this emergency doesn’t happen again.” That type of thought should happen at any stage. Instead, this is a systematic change in the design of work flows, products, and systems so that unexpected problems are less common and less damaging. A product’s cost can often be reduced by 70% when the designers’ goal is to make the product easier for manufacturing. Similarly, perhaps 70% of your emergencies could be avoided by focusing on internal customers and avoiding downstream emergencies. Of course, balancing the needs of internal customers with those of external customers is difficult. Nevertheless, keeping the needs of both customers in mind will help reduce emergencies for which you can’t plan.

How to Use the Five Steps of Firefighting

Whenever a problem arises, I look at where in the five steps my response to the emergency is. Based on the size and frequency of the problem, I can then look at options for moving the response to the next level. Few fires need all five steps; such investment would be overkill. However, simply knowing at what stage each of my problems is helps me prioritize my improvement efforts. Soon the categorization becomes second nature, and process improvement becomes easier, quicker, and more effective.

Best of all, there’s less fires to fight. And the fires I still have to fight are easier to put out.

At what stages are the recent emergency responses you’ve initiated?

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