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Operational Efficiency

How to avoid the pitfalls of firefighting and make time for change

Organisations that value firefighting and heroic firefighters more than they value learning – and developing good problem solvers – will struggle to achieve manufacturing excellence. Manufacturing Advisor Rachel Baldry explains how leaders can build a culture that prevents small problems from recurring and free up time for more important projects.

See also: Are you Made For Manufacturing?

Many manufacturing leaders often feel like there is an endless list of fires to put out in their business, with another popping up every time one is extinguished. They end up in a vicious cycle of knowing they need to improve, but feeling unable to get to the root cause of a problem before it bursts back to life, sending them rushing over to the fire extinguisher again.

Productivity goes down, profitability goes down, and the constant day-to-day battling demotivates staff. Meanwhile, managers have no time to work on the things that would really benefit the organisation.

As my colleague Nick Brandwood explored in a previous blog, this was a common theme and the cause of much discussion in the first cohort of Made for Manufacturing, our online programme of workshops and peer-to-peer learning which is now taking applications for its latest intake.

When constant firefighting is the norm, it’s easy to fall into the trap of seeing the fire extinguisher as the hero. But it’s important to remember that fire extinguishers do not prevent fires from occurring. The fires will only stop once learning and root cause problem solving are valued over the firefighting itself.


It starts at the top

The behaviour that drives a firefighting-first culture nearly always comes from management. Here are three common scenarios:

1. The wrong targets

Company A focuses all of its attention on getting products out of the door on time. Hitting the delivery date is the Production Manager’s only target. They have no formal quality targets, meaning no quality checks on products before they are sent out. They have no cost targets either, so no one is keeping an eye on overtime or rework. As far as measuring success is concerned, it doesn’t matter what else happens as long as the customer deadline is met.

Over time, undetected quality and cost issues begin to back up. Fires break out regularly and firefighting becomes ‘normal’, ultimately because of poor metrics.

2. Over-rewarding heroic firefighters

Company B has a Quality Manager who is extremely comfortable in firefighting situations. Quality issues appear regularly but they take the initiative and fix them quickly, and the top management praise them for doing a great job.

However, behind the scenes the Quality Manager is unwittingly the cause of some of the fires in the first place. They are in their element as a firefighter, but not so comfortable when it comes to root cause analysis and permanently solving recurring problems. In this situation, the same fires will keep occurring because only the firefighting is getting recognition.

3. Delegating upwards

Company C’s Production Manager is an experienced member of staff and likes to get involved on the shopfloor as much as possible. Unfortunately, this has led to a habit of staff handing their problems over to the Production Manager rather than learning to solve them themselves.

The manager ends up burdened by ‘monkeys’ that prevent them from doing any meaningful work to improve performance. Meanwhile, staff on the shopfloor are incentivised to avoid taking responsibility for fixing any issues they face.


Getting to the root of the problem

The above scenarios are just a few examples of how a firefighting culture can be unintentionally driven from the top. To prevent firefighting becoming the norm, leaders instead need to develop a culture of problem solving and fixing issues at the source.

This is a skill that can be learnt. A good problem-solving manager will always begin by asking the Five Whys to get to the root cause of every issue. Once the Whys have been identified, the next question should be “How can we stop this happening again?” This is a crucial part that many organisations tend to miss.


Download our factsheet on Problem Solving


Empowering people

The next step is to delegate responsibility, rather than pass problems up the chain. Supervisors and staff members need to be empowered to ask the Five Whys and solve small issues themselves, thereby freeing up time for managers to focus on more important tasks and preventing other fires from occurring.

This requires coaching, which takes time and energy, but if you were to compare it to all the time and energy you spend fighting the same recurring problems, the investment is more than worthwhile.


Visual management

Visualising performance can be a useful tool in preventing fires from breaking out. This often takes the form of visual management boards showing metrics such as SQCDP (Safety, Quality, Cost, Delivery, People), which was certainly missing in the example of Company A above.

A novel example of how to use visual management to prevent and solve problems before they occur is ATEC Engineering Solutions in Salford. ATEC transitioned from a single visual board for the management team to innovative departmental ‘cubes’, which each department uses to take a forward look at their work.



Another way of looking at a problem is to see it as a gap between the ‘standard’ and what’s actually happening in reality. Once you have identified the root cause of the gap (using the Five Whys) and how to close it, you create a new Standard Operating Procedure to replace the old one.

If you don’t have any standard work instructions or operating procedures in place to begin with, it’s difficult to solve problems because you have nothing to compare against – you cannot really identify what went wrong.


Learn more about Standard Work


When introducing a new standard to your organisation, always use the Plan, Do, Check, Act (PDCA) cycle to ensure changes are planned and analysed effectively before being adopted. 


Join Made for Manufacturing

As you can see, overcoming a firefighting-first culture needs to be driven by management. This is exactly what manufacturing leaders are achieving through Made for Manufacturing. The peer-to-peer element of the programme means that leaders can share their experiences and learn from others in a similar position, bringing a fresh perspective to the challenges they face. As the saying goes, a problem shared is a problem halved.

Apply for a place on our next cohort today.

Apply for Made for Manufacturing

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