9 Actions to transition from firefighting to improving


The customer is missing a part – did production forget to pack it or did my junior engineer forget to include it in the packing list?

This part doesn’t fit, production is at a standstill – did our subcontractor screw up or did I put the wrong tolerance on the drawing?

A customer called and said their machine is faulty – Are they not using it right, is it a production fault, is the design not reliable enough?

Catastrophic failure during testing – Is it Friday yet?

Firefighting is an ever present part of daily work life for most Engineers and Engineering Managers. You can try to run from it, hide, ignore it and hope it goes away but that all just causes it to bite even harder.

When firefighting gets to an extreme and is taking over almost every day, we do realise there is a problem and there needs to be improvement. We call a consultant, go on a training course or buy another software tool . . .

How often do these ‘solutions’ actually solve the problem. They all tend to be based on the ideal scenario: ‘you just need to do this, this and this, flick this switch and hey presto – improvement!’ The missing piece with most of these solutions is . . . well lets stick with the firefighting analogy: If your house is on fire, a traditional ‘consultant’ can be equivalent to the fire chief telling you that you should turn off all electrical appliances after use; a training course is equivalent to attending a fire safety course and a piece of software is equivalent to installing a smoke alarm. All good, sensible, albeit common sense actions but none of them are going to stop the fire that is currently engulfing your house nor will they be much use after the house has burnt down. You need to put the fire out at source first. To help with that here is a list of 9 key actions you should take during the firefight to help you to transition into improvement:

1. Practice mindfulness – This is a bit of a buzz word in office performance these days and the first step usually quoted for practicing mindfulness is to ‘be mindful’ – ground-breaking stuff. This is however a practical application of mindfulness, take a step back from the flames, look at the big picture and relate the scale of this issue to all your other priorities and your project plan. The flames always seem bigger and hotter when you are right up close to them. You might even realise that sometimes it is best to just let the fire burn itself out

2. Accept it – It can be very oppressive and demotivating to be constantly firefighting. We have all had those days when you have been flat out all day but look back at the end of the day and feel like you haven’t actually achieved anything. Taking the right mental approach plays a big part in how you cope with that stress. You are an engineer, engineers are problem solvers and firefights are just problems that need solved. Put the fires out for good and start looking back on your day, content with how many problems you have solved

3. Find the root cause – tackle the fire at source. Try the 5 Why? technique:

  1. Why is the customer complaining? – Because their product broke;
  2. Why did it break? – Because the frame was too weak;
  3. Why was it weak? – Because its joints weren’t welded correctly;
  4. Why was that? – Because weld detail wasn’t specified on the drawing;
  5. Why was that? – Because the engineer didn’t learn about welding at university. (True story)      . . and remember the solution may not always be what you expect

4. Take complete action, don’t just fan the flames. When you identify the root cause, take complete action to eliminate it permanently. Follow the DMAIC method – Define (identify the root cause), Measure (what is the current performance), Analyse (how does it need to improve and how can you achieve that), Improve (take action) and Control (take steps to ensure action is permanent)

5. Delegate. Often firefighting falls to the most diligent or conscientious of us or to the person who will suffer the worst consequences when in fact they are not primarily responsibility. Don’t look to assign blame but make it a team issue and use all the resources around you

6. Don’t make it ok for people to make mistakes – If it is your job to catch issues and put out the fires, don’t make life too easy for the people up the line letting the issues flow through. For example if you are responsible for approving production drawings, try only returning drawings for correction on a Friday afternoon – the standard will improve as the people creating the drawings try to avoid getting caught out when they want to get away for the weekend

7. Cover all bases – like playing chess, think a few moves ahead. Don’t put out one fire only to spark another in the process. Go back to the project plan and adjust it if necessary – you might not be able to move a deadline but you might move a milestone or add more resource

8. Learn – Learn lessons from the process of putting out those fires. Why did it happen, how did you fix it, what if it happens again? Record these lessons and involve other people in the team to learn with you. Develop core competencies rather than leave blind spots. A good idea is to include a review of problems faced and resolved as a brief part of a weekly team meeting. That is how you continuously improve

9. Keep calm. When everything is going up in flames, that is when most eyes are watching and that is the time when you can either shine through or fail as a leader in front of your team or as a potential leader in front of your managers.

You may already be doing some of these things. As with all good advice, this is mostly common sense applied in the right way, at the right time. Apply these 9 key points when you are in the middle of the fire and you will start to notice over time that the fires will get fewer. When you are then ready to start your improvement journey you will realise you are already quite a bit down that road.

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