Fire Fighting vs Fire Prevention

Friday, November 5, 2021 2:23 PM

I was recently reintroduced to the following quote from W. Edwards Deming, and although originally published in his book "Out of the Crisis" in 1982, it remains maybe even more poignant today than it did nearly 40 years ago.

One gets a good rating for fighting a fire. The result is visible; can be quantified. If you do it right the first time, you are invisible. You satisfied the requirements. That is your job. Mess it up, and correct it later; you become a hero. W. Edwards Deming

The quote and the reference it makes frustrates so many people in the workforce today because of its near-universal application. Those who are seen to address issues and put out the proverbial or actual fires are revered as heroes. They get good ratings during the performance reviews and often get singled out for personal and professional recognition as well. Because of the universal ability of people to point to the efforts they made to address the "fire," everyone can see the "value" that the person brings.  

It is unfortunate, really, because often, the root cause of the "fire" in the leader's operation or business is their lack of leadership and management competency to prevent the fire from happening in the first place. Those leaders who understand their business completely, know where the weak points in the system are, and work to strengthen those weaknesses before an issue gets overlooked. And unfortunately, this happens way too often and to way too many people. And the leaders assessing both these types of people often lack the competence to know the difference between the two types of leaders. And so the vicious circle of recognizing, rewarding, and promoting the "firefighters" continues, and those that are better leaders and better managers because they do not allow the fires to happen in the first place get left behind.

Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.  Marcus Aurelius

In the real world of fire fighting, there are firefighters who commit arson so that they can then be recognized for putting out those same fires. It is a real-world issue and a problem and happens more often than many people realize. It has been reported that in the United States, about 100 firefighters are convicted of arson each year. There are several causes for this behaviour, but one of the significant causes is Hero Syndrome. Not only the domain of firefighters, hero syndrome is the behaviour of someone seeking recognition, or heroism, by creating harmful or dangerous situations that they can then resolve.

While I'm not suggesting that all leaders and managers are maliciously creating the issue (or "fire") in their business so that they can then win the accolades of their bosses and others when they take superhuman efforts to rectify the problem, no. But I am also not suggesting that these actions and behaviours are entirely absent either. However, regardless of the motivation of the individual actions, these "hero" qualities get reinforced and amplified in performance reviews and assessments for promotability because of the bias it creates in the minds of the assessors (e.g., halo effect, belief bias, positivity effect, cheerleader effect). Those assessing these fire fighting leaders like what they see during the crisis, and it can create unwarranted and unsubstantiated impressions about these people's leadership qualities because of it. And more than that, because the assessors often are not great leaders themselves, when they review the work of leaders who did not have a crisis because their superior leadership and management competency prevented it in the first place, these "safe and boring" leaders are often overlooked.

We don’t rise to the level of our expectations; we fall to the level of our training.  Archilochus

It somewhat reminds me of an issue during World War II in which the war planners were trying to figure out how to address the massive losses of bombers over Germany that were occurring. The planners and analysts started to look at the bombers that returned to try and figure out what to do to reduce the losses. The first solution was to add armour and reinforcement to all the places on the bombers that showed significant battle damage. Where the bombers took heavy hits and had lots of holes, the engineers began plans to reinforce these areas. However, before the engineers got too far along, one statistician highlighted the error of the plans. While there was no doubt that the planes that returned had significant battle damage, they actually did survive the flight and returned. What was actually in evidence was a complete map of where the bomber could be hit, take damage, and survive. Reinforcing these areas and up-armouring them would be a wasted effort. Instead, providing more protection to the areas that did not show battle damage on the returned planes was a better solution. So providing more protection to the cockpit, engines, and parts of the tail were ordered, and the aircraft's survivability increased. The parallel to the fire-fighting leaders is that we can mistake the leadership exhibited during the "fire" as evidence of these leaders' skills and competence when the data might suggest otherwise. The presence of "fires" or crises may, instead, suggest a lack of leadership skills and competence in the leader in the first place and may provide evidence of the leader's poor management of their team.

As an assessor, it is easy to get blinded and consumed by how someone took charge during a crisis and how they rallied the troops to address the issue. It can be spectacular how these leaders wield their authority and how they engage others to manage the emergency of the moment. Regardless of how we might believe that we want other characteristics in a leader, we still get impressed by the command and control types. But when assessing their ability and their competence, we must go deeper than the flair they exhibited during the crisis and look at how they were leading before the emergency in the first place. Asking probing questions like the following may provide greater insight into the leader's true capability than only being transfixed on how they took charge during the crisis itself.  

  • Should the leader ought to have reasonably foreseen that the event could happen? Did they take steps to prevent its occurrence in the first place?
  • What systems, procedures, and processes are in place that should have prevented this crisis from happening? What is the health of those systems and processes? Does the leader direct their team to test the effectiveness and adequacy of these processes regularly?
  • How is competency assessed and assured within the team, including the leader, so that everyone knows their roles well? What training and drilling occurs within the organization to assure competency?

Rank does not confer privilege or power.  It imposes responsibility. Peter F. Drucker

Emergencies and crises are often a better indicator of the team's lack of leadership and competency than not; almost the reverse of what actually happens. After the crisis has been addressed and things have returned to "normal," it is a perfect time to reflect upon the leader's role in creating the situation in the first place. As a crisis is typically a symptom of poor systems and processes (including competency assurance), the responsibility for these falls directly within the leader's control, scope, and purview. Ignorance is no longer (and never was) a defence for incorrect, inappropriate, or broken systems and processes as that is at the core of leader work. And conscious decisions by the leader that turn out poorly, while maybe one step better, are still failing to make the right decision. Do not be enchanted by the emergency response of the leader and how they went over and above the call of duty to address the emergency; instead, dig deeper to understand how they may have failed in their duty to prevent the emergency in the first place. The time and place for meaningful "over and above the call of duty" action is in the prevention of issues, emergencies, and crises, not during. And as leaders, it is our duty to ensure that we appropriately recognize the leaders and teams of safe and boring operations and to dig deeper into those that have emergencies to identify the leadership root causes of their occurrence. With this shift in focus, maybe then we can correct the observation that Deming made and what so many others have lived and experienced since.