Could you imagine what would happen if, when firefighters got to a scene, they just knocked down the flames and left? How many times would they be rushing back to same fire over and over? But, they don’t. You see, firefighters know that you must take the time to know whether the fire is truly out before leaving. Otherwise, they would spend so much time putting out the same fires that as new ones arose and added to the burden, they would be overwhelmed.
Unfortunately, many in the business world have not learned this lesson. I have seen managers struggling with the same fires over and over in an attempt to hide them. They were trying to maintain the facade that they had everything in control, while looking to the next promotion. The problem is, it eventually catches up with them when sufficient time and resources aren’t present to cover the issues up. The end result is usually a catastrophe. I have seen managers and engineers that felt they didn’t “have the time” and would rush to a conclusion and move on. Amazingly, they did not understand how much of their time was being consumed by putting out the same fires over again. I’ve seen lazy managers and engineers that would do as little as was required to get past an issue. They failed to understand how much more work they were creating for themselves having to put out the same fires over and over. Then there are the “deer in the headlights”, feeling overwhelmed by issues and not knowing what to do. They will just keep grabbing at straws until something seems to work and then move on, hoping the problem is fixed. But it rarely is.
To make matters worse, many companies will put metrics in place to combat this, making the closing of issues part of the semi-annual or annual evaluation process. They judge things like: number of issues, average time to close issues, number of issues by severity, etc. Unfortunately, the end result is not what is intended and leads to either issues being hidden or a rush to a conclusion, perpetuating the cycle. While there may be some benefit to monitoring issues and solutions, that can be a slippery slope. Many times, this leads to more ways to measure performance which, in turn, gets more cumbersome, requiring more time and exacerbating the problem.
So, do we throw our hands up and just give up? No! I have been on both sides of this fence and, though uncomfortable, there are ways to combat this way of thinking. No matter what your position is, it starts with a true evaluation of where you stand and a plan to battle this mindset. As an engineer or anyone else on the front line, make the decision that you’re going to do what it takes to put the fires out for good. Any new fires have to be extinguished completely. Since you still have to deal with management and whatever policies and metrics are in place, look for the biggest bang that will require the least amount of time and resources. Put it out. Then the next and the next. It will be a real struggle at first, but, eventually, you will gain momentum and the time saved can be used to fight the harder issues. Don’t wait for the company or others to get on board. You have the power to make your own situation better.
If you are a department manager, the situation is pretty much the same, although you will want to protect the people that are being successful at putting permanent solutions in place, even if it hurts your department metrics. It will hurt at first, until you gain some traction. But after the initial pain, you will likely be setting the standard.
For upper management, the same approach to prioritize the issues will work well. But, understand that you are dealing with people. The carrot and stick only work if there is guidance and direction. Be involved in the process enough to know when policies and metrics are becoming obstacles and remove or revise them. Instead of only looking at the metric, take time to understand why the numbers are what they are and if there is good reason to have missed “the mark”, if it happens. Put a human side on the fight and encourage those who are successful based on what they faced and overcame rather than an arbitrary set of numbers.
No matter where you fit within an organization, you can be the difference. Just put the damn thing out!