Leave the Firefighting to the Firefighters

By Joseph Krause

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Making Time for Innovation: Leave the Firefighting to the Firefighters

I had the pleasure of attending the Business Transformation and Operational Excellence conference in chilly Orlando recently. After all the sessions I attended, one particular slide remained lodged in my brain, and has changed the way I think about planning.

This slide outlined how much time western organizations spend on “firefighting” compared to their Japanese counterparts. 3 times as much.

Firefighting, for the uninitiated, involves running around in a panic, solving problems that pop up unexpectedly that require immediate attention, and usually could have been prevented with due diligence. Firefighting can take the form of responding to a frantic email at 2 am because a supplier never showed, or calling a last-minute meeting to address the power outage in the warehouse.

Firefighting is time consuming and extremely exhausting because it doesn’t allow you to get into a consistent rhythm.

That said, the presentation claimed that western organizations spend 40% of their time on operations and 60% of their time on firefighting!

Making Time for Innovation and Strategic Planning

For the strategic planners out there – you’ve noticed that 60% firefighting + 40% operations = 0% left for strategy.

This should be cause for alarm. A fire alarm.

But everyone is left in this Groundhog Day situation, right? Don’t all business leaders wish they had time for innovative initatives, but never get to them?

As it turns out, this presentation also highlighted how Japanese companies spend their time. 20% of time is spent on daily operations, 20% on firefighting, and 60% on continuous improvement / innovation / strategic planning.

Think about that for a moment.

Japanese companies, on average, reduced the time spent firefighting by 40%, enabling space to spend 60% of their time on the most important thing – innovation.

What percentage of your time do you think you spend on firefighting vs. strategic planning / innovation?

Combatting Operational Pressure

I published a blog post recently on operational planning and what you’ll find is that most firefighting is related to operational pressures.

The issue with a laser focus on operations is that you spend all of your time worrying about the problems that impact how your organization functions today, instead of looking ahead to areas of which you’re not currently taking advantage.

While you’re optimizing what you already have, one of your competitors will do their best to out-innovate you.

One analogy used at the conference mentioned that you can only get so much added efficiency out of a horse, but it will never turn into a car. If you spend all of your time trying to make your horse run faster, someone will eventually beat you with their vehicle.

Who Started the Fire?

In order to reduce the amount of time you spend firefighting, you need to better understand the root cause of your problems.

When a house burns down, the fire department does an extensive investigation to better understand why the fire started in the first place. Was it arson? Was it the fuse box? Was it you leaving that frozen pizza in the oven overnight? (Be safe out there, folks!)

You need to take this same approach in your business. Learn from your mistakes to ensure you improve future results. If you’re only taking the time to run from fire to fire, you’re not spending the time you need to actually improve, and evolve past your competition.

What do you plan on doing to reduce the amount of time you spend firefighting? What would you be able to do with an extra 60% capacity in your workload?

One area that might be smoking up into a fire is your reporting. Do you have a way to see trends before they burst into flames? If you’re interested in seeing how AchieveIt can help, watch a product demo video.