Firefighting – the ability to handle the unexpected and the unplanned, to respond quickly in a crisis and restore calm. It’s a valuable skill and, for those of us who do it well, it’s a time-honoured route to greater responsibility and promotion.
The common feature for all firefighting incidents is the need for an immediate fix, and that often means disruption to the planned stuff that you could more usefully be doing. In an ideal world, there would be no emergencies, but this is not an ideal world and there will always be fires to put out and, if you’re spending too much time fighting fires, you must develop processes, behaviours and habits that minimise wasted time and reduce the chance of the same thing catching fire in the future.
Step by step process
First, consider the steps in successful crisis management:
1. Stay calm – getting angry or displaying other behaviours that might look like panic will only make the situation worse. If you are responsible for fixing the crisis, maintain a calm, professional attitude and be conscious of the impression you are giving others while you deal with the problem. Remind yourself that this is not the first crisis you’ve dealt with and it certainly won’t be the last.
2. Cleary identify the problem – what exactly is wrong? What must be fixed to return the situation to normal?
3. Understand the consequences – what loss are you avoiding by fighting this fire? If the potential loss is small, make sure that the cost (time, effort, money) of your solution is also small. If the potential loss is large, the cost to fix the problem will be less critical.
4. Resist taking control – ideally, the person dealing with the crisis should be the person who is usually responsible for the activity. Give help where it’s needed, but, if at all possible in the situation, take a coaching approach to assisting – ask the person responsible what options they have consider, which option do they prefer, can they explain the benefits of their preferred option over other options they’ve considered. Offer only enough help that you are confident the person in charge can resolve the crisis, then trust them to do so. Giving in to the urge to take direct control every time a fire must be put out is likely to build a culture of dependency in your team, something good leaders avoid.
5. Learn – carry out an autopsy to find out what went wrong and how to avoid the same situation in the future. Resist any urge to blame individuals. If your autopsy process shows you that one or more team members are repeatedly the cause of crisis situations, make certain that each team member is appropriately trained, properly resourced and empowered to complete the tasks assigned and manage the responsibilities given. You will also want to make sure that you can monitor performance and that your disciplinary process is up to date, robust and fit for purpose if a team member proves incapable of achieving the reasonable requirements given to them.
6. Plan – review your recent firefighting activities. Where did the crisis start? Who was the ‘arsonist’? Who usually does the firefighting? Is there some untoward motivation for creating the problem or coming up with the solution? You wouldn’t be the first manager to have someone in their team who wants to appear indispensable by covertly starting a crisis and then being the superstar who comes up with the solution. Neither would you be the first manager to be the fire starter yourself. Take an honest look at your management techniques as a regular part of your crisis management process. Look for patterns in the crisis situations. Consider how you will use what you’ve learned to change and improve future performance.
7. Make changes – improve your training, redesign existing and implement new procedures, carry out maintenance, install new equipment, give a team member greater authority, change workflow patterns. For each crisis, take a planned, strategic approach to understanding the problem and implementing change to minimise the risk that the problem will occur again.
A real-life example
An LMI client organisation manufactures a bespoke product that is individually specified by each of the company’s customers. The product ships in sacks and each sack must ship with a label that contains the precise details of its contents’ composition. Without those labels, the shipment will be rejected. Labels are printed in house as product arrives from production to the logistics department, with product leaving site en route to the customer the same day. Delivery to the customer is time critical, so any delay potentially jeopardises the contract. Individual contracts are high value and the loss of any contract would be a serious issue. Additionally, the third-party transport company has a contract clause that permits ‘waiting costs’ to be charged once the loading time exceeds the agreed duration.
With that background, imagine the sense of crisis when the only printer capable of printing shipping labels failed at the start of the shipping process for a lorry load of 20 kg bags. Fortunately, the manager responsible is very experienced in her role, used to responding quickly to fix problems and known for staying icy calm in the face of crisis.
A clearly identified problem
Her first action was to establish that the cause of the printer failure was an empty inkjet cartridge and the company had no replacement in stock. As this printer is a specialised printer, no local supplier had cartridges in stock and the usual, online supplier could deliver no quicker than next day.
The potential consequences if the crisis was not resolved quickly and successfully included the loss of a substantial, highly profitable contract with a leading customer and the increased costs from the transport provider. The manager was prepared to do whatever was necessary to put out this fire.
Options suggested by the printer operator included manually trimming the template labels so that they could be used in some other printer or handwriting onto the template labels. After further investigation, it was agreed that trimming the labels was likely to cause paper feed jams in the non-specialised printers and that there were simply too many labels required and too much text on each label for it to be practical to produce them by hand.
After a discussion with the team, it was agreed that the manager would quickly produce a template in Microsoft Word that matched the pre-prepared template as closely as possible. The production department would email the composition list for pasting into the new template, and the substitute labels would be printed onto A4 paper, folded and fixed to each sack in a stick-on document wallet. A call was made to the customer to confirm that this work around was acceptable and the whole team worked together so that substitute labels were printed and attached to sacks almost as quickly as the usual labels and the shipment left the warehouse inside the agreed loading duration with no waiting costs owed.
The next day, the manager called the team together and thanked them for their efforts in successfully resolving yesterday’s printer crisis. She also asked for the team to explain how it happened that there was no replacement inkjet cartridge in stock and to give their suggestions for making sure that the situation didn’t occur again.
They explained that the printer operator wasn’t authorised to create purchase orders, but was required by the finance team to always issue a purchase order to suppliers when placing an order. The director who would usually sign off the team’s purchase orders was on leave and a particularly busy period had caused the inkjet to run out sooner than expected and before the director returned from leave.
Their suggested improvements included keeping more inkjet cartridges in stock, changing the authorisation process for purchase orders, and buying an additional printer, which would have the added advantage of giving backup for more serious breakdowns in the current printer.
With a clear understanding of what she could change and what she couldn’t easily change, the manager agreed that more cartridges should be kept in stock with the supplier authorised to create a repeating order that would be monitored by the printer operator, and she agreed to start the procurement process for a second printer.
Good crisis management by an experienced manager overcame a potentially serious failure and the team’s confidence was maintained by involving them in finding the solution to the immediate problem and in creating the longer-term solution that improved the process.
Developing crisis management skills
How would you and your team have managed this situation? Very often, our first experience of firefighting in business is the first time someone lights a fire and it’s our job to put it out. Imagine the risks if real firefighters were treated in the same ‘sink or swim’ way the first time they dealt with a real fire. Of course, they never are, because the fire service recognises the essential nature of well-developed training, coaching and mentoring in developing real-world firefighters.
In business, we can take the same approach. The process for crisis management detailed above is drawn from LMI’s Effective Personal Productivity programme and the real-life example was managed by a manager who was working through that programme with LMI at the time.
Good management skills and effective leadership traits can be developed in almost all people. LMI would be very happy to help you develop them in your team.