How to Stop Firefighting – Getting Calm

Many business owners and managers find themselves caught up in a constant round of fire fighting. There just never seems to be a quiet moment and when you eventually get your head above water.

The good news is – there is a lot you can do to stop the fire fighting and get calm and back in control.

Early in my career I found myself in the role of Production Superintendent, responsible for over 80 people working on the door build for the Rover 800 at Rover Group’s Cowley Assembly plant.

I was running round like a headless chicken, desperately juggling problems of all shapes and sizes from quality issues and parts supply to people challenges. My colleagues seemed to be doing much the same. It would have been easy to assume that “this is how it is”. However, at the time I was working closely with Honda, and it struck me that there seemed to be much more calmness in their approach; I vowed to create some of that in my section before my team and I burnt out!

Within 3 months I had tangible results, and 20 years on I am still using these same techniques. I have used them in every subsequent position, in my current business and with my clients’ businesses.

So what can you do?
1) The first thing is to be aware of where you are on the continuum of “fire fight to calm”. Think of it as a 0-10 scale, and keep track of any changes

2) If you’re in the fire fight side, the second action is to build a strong visualisation, including feelings, of what the “calm” version would be like

3) Then build a detailed plan of what’s required to deliver that – e.g. the number of new customers, number of projects/size/margin, sales conversion rates etc

4) Identify where things are off-track at the moment and why. It’s important to dig in to the detail. You need to delve in and specify how to increase margins, for example

This one step can make a huge difference. By simply looking at the detail and defining it I have seen companies I work with increase revenue by 40%, increase the number of customers re-ordering by 57% and reducing lag time between order and delivery from 30 days to 15 days. All of these impact the bottom line. All of them help to move you permanently away from fire fight mode.

This is because once the reality is understood, improvement actions can be planned. Even if the reality is well off the original requirement, and no immediate improvements can be found, it’s better to know this and focus efforts on alternative lines of action rather than pursuing the “if we achieve X” mantra, when you clearly won’t in the near future!

So although in the midst of a fire-fight it may be counter-intuitive to pause. Do take a moment (or a few!) and work through the points above. In particular make sure you put some time and energy into pint 4 – this will make the biggest difference.

Next week I will dig into this a little deeper and explain how to prevent further fires breaking out in the future.

About Hilary Briggs

A management consultant with over 15 years of industrial experience having held senior management positions at Rover Group, Whirlpool Corporation and The Laird Group plc. For the last 10 years, she’s worked with SME’s to improve their performance. Hilary is Managing Director of productivity specialists R2P Ltd.