By Steve Kane
Many years ago, I was visiting a friend’s house in Southern California. It was a 1950’s ranch style house with a straight walkway from the street to the door. There was a tall palm tree where the walkway met the sidewalk. On the opposite side of the walkway there was an empty space that suggested something was missing. My friend, Tim, explained there had been a matching palm tree in that space until the Fourth of July, a couple of years before.
Tim was enjoying the holiday in the backyard with family and friends. The twin palm trees near the street were tall enough that he could see them over the house. Fourth of July fireworks shot through sky and landed in one of the palms. Instantly, the fronds were in flames.
Tim rushed to the front of the house, grabbed the garden hose and stretched it to the street. He put all the water he could onto the burning tree, but the flames grew. He wouldn’t give up. He kept putting more water on the base of the flames.
Let it burn
An off-duty firefighter just happened to be driving up the street and stopped to help. The firefighter, very authoritatively, told Tim the burning tree was gone. It was a lost cause. He explained that Tim needed to put the water on the tree that wasn’t yet burning to keep the fire from spreading.
Tim was able to save the second tree, thanks to the advice of the firefighter. While he was upset about losing the first tree, the results could have been worse.
Contain the flames
Tim’s story of the burning palm tree comes to mind from time to time when I face a major work problem or crisis. How often do we think of our work as firefighting?
Suppose there is a major process failure or a huge rush order comes in. The first thought can be to put all available resources on the crisis to solve the problem. This very well could be the right thing to do. It could also be the wrong thing to do.
If there are more than enough resources available to handle both the crisis and the normal activity, there would be no reason to delay fighting the fire. It get’s a little tricky, though, when resources are limited.
Fighting the fire with limited resources (like a garden hose instead of a fire hose) could do little more than allow the fire to spread. Using your limited resources to protect the surrounding area might be the best course of action.
Minimize the damage
Taking resources off of properly functioning production lines to deal with a process failure on another line could result in defects or low productivity in both areas. Likewise, taking resources off of on-time orders to rush something else through the process could mean disappointing multiple customers instead of just one.
Putting all of your water at the base of the flames might not be the best thing to do first. Contain the fire first, then work to put it out.