Stop firefighter … take your company to the next level

Does this sound familiar to you? While drinking your coffee in the morning and planning your day, a colleague walks in your office to inform you about an unexpected problem that requires your immediate attention. Before you know it, you end up spending the whole day firefighting instead of working on high payoff activities. Firefighting in business is defined as the act of allocating resources to deal with “unforeseen” problems as they arise.

Some companies have a habit of applying temporary solutions to problems. Such habit might drive the company into a continuous firefighting mode where problems emerge or reoccur regularly. Such situation can be costly, exhausting and can expose the company to increased risk and they might cope with the following situations:

  • Time and resources are not enough to solve all arising issues;
  • Employees cannot focus on important tasks since urgent tasks become priority;
  • Most solutions to problems are incomplete and lack required controls to prevent them from reoccurring;
  • Employees tend to get overworked, and demotivated, which might decrease overall performance;
  • Small issues escalate and might lead to crisis.

If this is the case in your company, you might want to break this vicious circle by, for example, using a productivity tool such as Eisenhower Matrix to assess the problems to determine how important and urgent it is to solve them. This matrix can also help you decide to disregard tasks that are neither urgent nor important. After assessing the problems, you need to place them into the respective quadrant of the matrix and take the corresponding actions as explained below:

Urgent Not Urgent
Important Solve as soon as possible Schedule
Not Important Delegate Eliminate

1) Solve problems that are both important and urgent as soon as possible;

2) Schedule problems that are important, yet not urgent;

3) Delegate those that are not important, yet urgent; and

4) Eliminate those that are neither important nor urgent.

Moreover, it is eminent to establish realistic deadlines, manage resources optimally and seek outside support if and where needed to fortify your team to prevent the team members from burning out and/ or getting demotivated.

Be aware that while optimal planning is crucial, it might not be enough to break the vicious circle of firefighting. You should, therefore, also apply adequate problem-solving techniques. In this respect, it is important to distinguish between structural and sporadic problems since the approach to solve fundamental and sporadic problems is fundamentally different.

At the one hand, sporadic problems happen “once in the while” and are caused by a specific event. For example, the phone central of your company was out of service and your customers could not reach your customer service desk that day.

Structural or chronicle problems, at the other hand, happen repeatedly. These types of problems tend to become status quo and companies are often inclined to implement workarounds or treat the symptoms of these problems instead of eliminating their root cause. By doing so, the root cause of the problem remains unsolved and the problem might repeat itself, trigger other problems or worsen. An example of a structural problem is when customers complain continuously about long queues in your office. A quick fix might be to add additional agents, yet, this might not necessarily solve the root cause of the problem, which might be for example lack of motivation, knowledge or skills of your agents, lack of leadership, ineffective systems or procedures. It is, therefore, essential to make proper diagnoses to identify and solve root causes of chronical problems.

Most companies do not realize that hidden cost related to chronical problems especially cost related to poor quality are generally relatively high.  While these costs might remain unnoticed when a company thrives and have excess financial resources, they might become a burden, however, during tough financial times and put considerable pressure on a company’s operations and finances as financial buffers starts diminishing and the structural problems starts surfacing. We will elaborate on cost of poor quality in a next article.

In conclusion, it is eminent to diagnose and solve root causes of structural problems timely instead of treating symptoms. Root causes are not always obvious and easy to identify, however, companies should apply quality improvement tools, therefore, to dig deep, diagnose and solve such problems to break the chain of continuous firefighting, and create room to invest valuable resources in high-payoff activities.

Featured Image by  Connor Betts