Don't Be a Firefighter

Feb. 1, 2011
Firefighting is a great public service, but in business it is mismanagement.

So often, after asking people in business, any type of business, how their day is going they say, “Putting out fires.” This is usually stated with a negative and dreadful tone in their voice almost as if they were trapped and had no responsibility for the “fires” they were putting out.

How many job descriptions have you read that say “putting out fires” is a high priority? How many times have you been told you were being hired primarily to put out fires and to worry about managing expenses, growing revenue, developing employees and the customer base later? How many times have you told your new or existing employees that you would like them to be sure and budget plenty of time to fight fires because they would be doing quite a bit of it?

Do you feel good about compensating your employees for this purpose? Employees, do you get a feeling of satisfaction from putting out fires or would you rather focus on growing a more profitable business with a higher level of customer satisfaction?

Learning to focus on value-added tasks related to your business rather than firefighting can be done. However, this is a discipline that requires a mindset of continual improvement with a desire to challenge the status quo. If you have this desire you can begin building a culture that will yield a higher return on investment on your human capital — in a single department or even companywide.

A transformation of thinking and application of simple process management can change your business culture for long-term success. The number one key is for leaders to make it clear that continuous improvement is going to be part of the culture and why it is necessary to long-term success. The following tactical methods outlined below apply to any business that wants to improve its processes and see results with:

  • Cost control/Higher profits
  • Improved employee morale
  • Increased customer satisfaction
  • Marketability of differentiation: marketing the unique strengths gained from the unique focus on processes — how you outperform the competition.

The final question: Will you take responsibility for your business success or will you let your competition do it for you? One of these actions will take place. I hope you will join me.

Tactical methods

Step one:

Identify the top business processes upon which you and your customers rely on. Keep in mind customers aren't just outsiders they are those we serve inside our organization. Internal customer satisfaction is just as important. After completing the list you should be able to clearly explain why it is a top business process. We are moving away from what we think we know or how we feel to FACT finding.

Step two:

Before I tell you what step two is you must commit to not discussing solutions yet. Communicate the following very clearly: If you or those being interviewed have ideas write them down and save them for later. The best solutions can't be selected until the root causes have been determined.

Have what I call an efficiency meeting and interview personnel at all levels that work in these processes and learn what pains they are feeling. Ask questions such as: what are your biggest time traps and why? How well do you think our customers feel we serve them in this area and how do you know?

Whether you are responsible for a region, district, location or department you will quickly see your priorities start to fall into place when you are getting good honest feedback. At this point pick the low-hanging fruit or the one that looks to have the highest amount of potential return and begin step three. Assemble teams using personnel from all levels.

Step three:

Guide a team through what Six Sigma practitioners refer to as “as is” process mapping. On a large sheet of flip chart paper, take sticky notes and step by step list every step in the process. When you get to a decision point (top process; yes or no) turn the sticky note to a diamond shape, which will give you more points to channel from.

As the team works through “as is” process mapping they will likely see things they didn't know were in the process or why some of these things were done, and on and on … Continue mapping the “as is” and analyze after completion.

You should be able to map out most daily (non-manufacturing) processes in about an hour if the leader keeps everyone focused and on point.

Step four:

Review the map and ask questions such as: Why do we do this? Does this bring value to the company or its customers? Does this meet the customers' expectations? Is this better than the way our competition does it? How many people touch/handle this document? Could we eliminate this step? Would it save time to do this first and that last? And so on…

Step five:

Upon completing the “as is” map start discussing solutions and the possible modifications that could be made. Then use them to reconstruct the map using the same technique as the “as is.” It is now time to bring out the ideas that no one was allowed to discuss earlier. Review the map, test it. Once everyone is comfortable with the new process assign ownership by area of responsibility. Be sure to communicate regularly to discuss how the new process is working. Don't be afraid to say when something is not working. Regroup, explore other options and move on. Whenever possible, use objective data to compare to earlier performance (your baseline) with the current to avoid solely relying on feel and speculation.

After leading numerous project teams using the many tools within the Six Sigma methodology I am a firm believer in the methodology. There is a place for strict use of these tools and there is also a place and a need to use many of the soft skills and disciplines to bring about more rapid change in your business.

Using the approach outlined above can create fast learning, continually improving businesses that are able to adapt and conquer the challenges and opportunities associated with change. Firefighting can't be completely eliminated; however, it can be minimized if critical business processes are identified and managed effectively — giving you the competitive edge.

Billy Holliday is rental services operations manager for Puckett Rents, The CAT Rental Store for central and southern Mississippi. He has 13 years experience in the equipment rental and contractor supply business. He has been responsible for sales and operations management and is a certified 6 Sigma Black Belt. His passions include providing world class customer service with a continual focus on product and service innovation for business growth. For more information, email him at [email protected].