How Do You Fight A Fire With A Garden Hose?

firefighter-752540_640By 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.

1 Comment

  1. Rob Thompson

    June 22, 2015 - 7:06 am

    In a crisis people tend to give it all they’ve got and go above and beyond their normal job roles. Firefighting creates can-do heroes. Heroes are often recognised and rewarded for their extraordinary efforts. This reinforces the behaviour. Everyone wants to be singled out as a hero. The bigger the panic, the more we give praise.

    Preventing a problem from happening by following systematic problem solving isn’t exciting. Stopping a crisis from occurring is often invisible. Employees are the greatest problem-solving tool. Recognise people who practice prevention day in and day out. Celebrate the team who implements a triage to control the queue of issues by regulating entry. By doing this instead of letting problems build up this team will decide how much resource and time to commit to the concern when it first arises. Admire them as this isn’t easy. It demands that they say, “This problem isn’t critical, so we are not going to address it immediately”.

    Of course there will always be the need for fire-fighting. But fire-fighting isn’t a sustainable way to profitably grow a company. A culture of long-term preventive problem-solving is.