If we’re going to fight fires, do it like the pros

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on 11-03-14

Email comes in. React. Issue gets raised at a meeting. React. Customer calls. React. What do we call it when we spend all day reacting to the events around us?


We all do it. It’s how most people spend the majority of their day. Sometimes one of the biggest values I can provide as an advisor and coach is to pull people out of the firefight just for a few minutes.

But if we all associate with firefighting so clearly, maybe we should aspire to fight fires like the pros. What does that look like? Firefighters spend very, very little of their time putting water onto flames. Here’s some keys to firefighting like the professional firefighter.

1. Spend most of your time on fire prevention

Firefighters, and fire departments, don’t just sit around waiting for a fire to break out. They spend most of their time preventing fires. They perform inspections. The work with regulators to write better fire code.

What does that look like in your work? It means building systems that are stable and ensure predictable, and desired, outcomes. This means leveraging standard work, building predictive measurement systems, and frequent inspections. Inspection of key risk areas is probably one of the underutilized areas in business, whether it is cybersecurity at banks or whether or not people follow standard work. You must identify key areas or processes that lead to good performance, and ensure that they are operating as desired.

2. Practice, practice, practice

When you do need to fight a fire, you better know what you’re doing. And so fire fighters practice, as do other professions where failure to perform leads to bad consequences, such as pilots and the military (doctors should practice, but their practice is on actual patients where outcomes matter).

How do you practice in business? By using the skills you need for critical situations in situations that don’t call for the same standard. I encourage leaders to do a LOT more structured problem solving than they ever felt they needed to, whether they use A3 Problem Solving or some other means. Use structure problem solving for the every day problems. It may not yield a different answer than if you did it more casually, but it builds skill and muscle memory. Then, when problem solving is super-critical, the skills are in place and ready to go.

3. Enroll others in the fight

Who does the most work on fire prevention? Not firefighters. There aren’t enough of them. They can’t be everywhere, all the time. And they know it.

So instead of telling someone how to handle a kerosene lantern after they put out the fire it just caused, or drive around looking for people burning an open flame under fire conditions, they educate the masses. They go to schools and teach kids how to prevent fires. They do awareness campaigns. They enroll the masses in their fight to prevent the fire in the first place.

Too many organizations have only a few key people involved in the critical work of both preventing and solving the problems. It’s not enough. There are too many problems. There are too many areas that can spark a fire or fan the flame. We need to enroll others in the fight. That means one of the most critical skills of leaders is to be able to teach. Your most important priority year over year is building the capability of the people in the organization.

If you do those 3 things, you’ll start to be a firefighter like the pros.