28 September 2023

"Here we work in a firefighter mode!" … Really?

By Xavier Perrin (xperrin@xp-consulting.fr)

"Here we work in a firefighter mode!" Many of the teams I support describe their daily work in this way, regardless of the industry. Many managers deplore these situations which exhaust their teams. Others consider that situations unavoidable. Even more, they liken it to agility, as a necessary quality that today organizations must demonstrate. Today, agility is an essential virtue that our organizations, companies and, de facto, our people, should show. We expect teams to be “agile”, understood “flexible, lively, quick to react". They must exercise imagination to invent and test solutions for overcoming daily challenges coming from the VUCA world which forges our supply chains. In other words, we expect our teams to be able to put out "fires" which jeopardize customer service: forecast errors, late supplier deliveries, quality issues, missing information, wrong data, overloads, absence of staff, transportation issues and other hazards.

Yet, those who such refer to "firefighter mode" obviously do not know much this noble trade. They would do well by learning to know it! They would find that one does not rely on the agility of firefighters for rescuing victims of fires or other calamities. For we didn't wait for the VUCA world of our 21st century for building organizations able to operate in a world constantly changing (Volatility), unpredictable (Uncertain), where everything is connected and interacts (Complexity), and where our environment can be interpreted in different ways (Ambiguity).

I have had the privilege to dedicate one year of my life to this job, as part of the military service that I could do in the prestigious Brigade des Sapeurs-Pompiers de Paris (Paris fire brigade). One year learning the basics of the trade, improving my physical fitness, repeating exercises, and above all, participating in more than 100 emergency interventions. One year that allowed me to learn how an organization is ready to face the unforeseeable, overcome worst hardships, and carrying out its duty: rescue people and protect material assets. While I had no idea at that time about what should become my professional career, I discovered principles, methods and techniques that allow to face the unforeseeable. Should these principles be systematically applied in organizations, urging our teams to be agile would not be necessary! Here are some of these principles.

Keep order and rigor

Imagine a fire departure in your home. Firefighters you alerted arrive a few minutes later. Barely off the vehicle, one of them call out his colleague: "Hey, Paulo, where did you put away the 80 mm union last time? I need it!" While Paulo scratches his head the flames are growing and rumbling… Of course and fortunately, it doesn't happen like this.

In fire engines, as well as in the warehouses where equipment and supplies are stored, there is a place for everything and everything is in its place. Every day, according to her or his assignment for the day, everyone checks the availability and proper functioning of the equipment she or he will have to use in operation. All problems are overcome immediately. When walking in the firehouse and fire engines (so called gemba walks in our factories!), firemen officers immediately identify stuff in wrong places or missing. They perform appropriate "corrective actions" regarding the staff while recalling basic rules on the spot. Later in my career in manufacturing, I experienced the "discovery" of the 5S method by amazed directors and managers. At that time, I understood they had no idea about the firefighter mode they so often criticized and denounced.

Do your teams who operate in firefighter mode get all the equipment, and mostly information, which will allow them to properly serve the customers and improve performance? Are there routines for checking every day, week, and month, that all they need is available in the right place and in good conditions? Is it so for information supposed to be available and up to date in the ERP system? If so, then your teams are actually working in firefighter mode…

Routines and training

Over the last two decades we discovered the benefits of creating "rituals" in our management practices. These rituals are more or less respected and relevant. When they are, it's really good and effective practices for accelerating problem solving at the right level. However, these rituals aim to react when facing gaps between actual and planned performance. Thus, they are reactive in essence. They are rarely used for testing operation procedures which will be necessary when facing unforeseeable situations. Nevertheless, the VUCA world precisely describes an environment where the improbable dominates. For being ready to face such situations, and also being ready to catch opportunities allowed by improbable events, we must be prepared.

The daily exercise is a one of the main ritual and high point for professional and voluntary firefighters. A document collects all procedures firefighters have to know for operations, for firefighting, assistance to persons taken ill, victims rescue, vehicle extrication, etc. Every morning, the commanding officer selects one procedure that everyone is supposed to know, and all attendees do it with appropriate equipment like exercise tower, car wrecks for extrications, etc. Mistakes are identified and corrected, right actions and good practices are recalled, and the exercise is repeated until perfect actions. This allows people to know perfectly what to do and how to do it, even when it comes to particularly rare interventions: they never faced that situation, but they repeat it tenths time.

If you and your teams regularly work out best practices for being applied in improbable situations (for example, implementing an alternative procurement source when a supplier is suddenly unable to deliver), furthermore if you periodically simulate those practices, even if their necessity is highly improbable… then, you actually work in firefighter mode.


Prevention is the basis of emergency and rescue jobs, that is: preventing risks before they occur. Buildings open to the public, high-rise buildings, and others are regularly visited. Exercises with local emergency teams are planned to update the procedures and prevention documents. It's also the opportunity to check if local equipment (emergency issues, dry risers, wall hydrants, etc.) are available and operating.

If you have established such preventing plans, including for order processing and deliveries to customers, if you check that they are up to date on a regular basis, that they are well known by the right people, that those people simulate and practice them regularly, then you and your teams actually work in a firefighter mode.

Feedback and experience sharing

A debriefing takes place after each intervention, in particular after the one which are unique regarding their scale or scarcity, for discussing what went well and what went wrong, and the mistakes which were made. From these experiences, exercises are planned for limiting the mistakes at the future operations. For people who never attended such intervention, it is also an opportunity to improve their knowledge and training. If you and your teams systematically conduct feedback meetings after unique situations (Unpredictable, Complex, in an ambiguous context), and then capitalize knowledge, update prevention plans, updates standards and routines, schedule training sessions for concerned people, then you and your teams work effectively in a firefighter mode.

Anticipation and planning

You will not be surprised if I tell you that in fire departments, besides operations, there are teams who evaluate the development of risks, context, environment, regulations, and social trends. They plan the development and implementation of means for creating better conditions for the interventions of rescue teams, for citizens, buildings, and infrastructures. Like in your "firefighters like" organizations where strategic planning, S&OP and capacity planning processes are perfectly running?

où les processus de planification tel le PIC / S&OP, où les équilibrage charge / capacité sont parfaitement réalisés ??

In conclusion So, finally, are you and your teams really working in firefighter mode? I hope so…

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