Reacting or Improving?


Are you stuck in firefighting mode?

When I started to write this article, I was a little reluctant.  Many of us use the analogy of firefighting when we talk about reacting to problems. However, this past year we’ve witnessed horrible wildfires across our country that have devastated communities, damaged the environment, and taken lives. Perhaps the casual use of this analogy undermines the real emphasis that organizations need to have for continuous improvement and innovation.
When a blaze breaks out, it’s good to have some firefighting skills. But as we saw this past year, sometimes those skills aren’t enough to avoid tragedy. Yet many leaders live with a culture that is replete with firefighting.  In fact, the most accomplished firefighters are recognized and rewarded. So much so, that you begin to suspect a little arson is going on.
We understand that it seems impossible to find the time to determine and address the root cause of each fire while you’re busy trying to put them out.  Part of the problem that we see in many organizations is that front line staff hasn’t been given the tools, training, and empowerment to tackle problems themselves. And by the time the problems become known by leaders, the fire is usually not just a small smoldering heap but a bonfire of epic proportions.
Investing in your people to provide them the necessary skills is the first step toward building an organizational culture where people have two jobs – performing their work and improving the processes for how they do their jobs. When we find organizations that have moved beyond firefighting to this level of maturity, there is real employee engagement and the results are impressive. This is what the Baldrige Criteria mean when they talk about high performing organizations.
There’s an excellent graphic in the Baldrige Excellence Framework that illustrates the progression organizations make from reacting to problems (firefighting) through systematic evaluation and improvement (prevention) to organizational learning (proactive improvement and innovation). Where is your organization on this continuum?  What’s your role in moving the culture of your organization toward high performance?


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