Many business owners and managers find themselves caught up in a constant round of fire fighting. For some, the more they tackle the fires, the more they seem to spring up and the worse the cycle can get. There just never seems to be a quiet moment and when you eventually get your head above water – its easy to get knocked back down again and find yourself fire fighting all over again.

The good news is – there is a lot you can do to stop the fire fighting and get calm and back in control.

Early in my career I found myself in the role of Production Superintendent, responsible for over 80 people working on the door build for the Rover 800 at Rover Group’s Cowley Assembly plant.

I was running round like a headless chicken, desperately juggling problems of all shapes and sizes from quality issues and parts supply to people challenges. My colleagues seemed to be doing much the same. It would have been easy to assume that “this is how it is”. However, at the time I was working closely with Honda, and it struck me that there seemed to be much more calmness in their approach; I vowed to create some of that in my section before my team and I burnt out!

Within 3 months I had tangible results, and 20 years on I am still using these same techniques. I have used them in every subsequent position, in my current business and with my clients’ businesses.

So what can you do?

1. The first thing is to be aware of where you are on the continuum of “fire fight to calm”. Think of it as a 0-10 scale, and keep track of any changes.

2. If you’re in the fire fight side, the second action is to build a strong visualisation, including feelings, of what the “calm” version would be like.

3. Then build a detailed plan of what’s required to deliver that – e.g. the number of new customers, number of projects/size/margin, sales conversion rates etc.

Identify where things are off-track at the moment and why. It’s important to dig in to the detail. You need to delve in and specify how to increase margins, for example.

This one step can make a huge difference. By simply looking at the detail and defining it I have seen companies I work with increase revenue by 40%, increase the number of customers re-ordering by 57% and reducing lag time between order and delivery from 30 days to 15 days. All of these impact the bottom line. All of them help to move you permanently away from fire fight mode.

This is because once the reality is understood, improvement actions can be planned. Even if the reality is well off the original requirement, and no immediate improvements can be found, it’s better to know this and focus efforts on alternative lines of action rather than pursuing the “if we achieve X” mantra, when you clearly won’t in the near future!

4. Identify specific actions, and break them down into small pieces. Back in my production superintendent role, I would tell myself “5 minutes a day doing something to make tomorrow better”. Some days I’d manage more and sometimes none. However the forward momentum built and that fed a positive feeling with its own reinforcement.

The key is to take actions to prevent the fires happening in the first place. What I saw with Honda was an objective review of plans after every project to refine timelines and other variables. In this way the plans became more and more accurate; for example, actions on a new product introduction plan kept on schedule, to the day, over a two year period!

Make sure you engage all the relevant people involved in the activity to get their ideas on how to improve it. When things are planned in a realistic way, there’s more time to look at how to do them even better, and the continuous improvement loop is established.

5. Monitor your progress and benchmark it. A common challenge with new business start ups is that there may not be benchmarks available. It’s crucial, in these early stages, to be monitoring all aspects of the business to ensure the model is updated and scalability aspects are checked.

Use whatever business networks you have to compare data. It’s better to have a range of potential values to start with and then check the actual against these rather than operating in complete darkness.

Also look for signs of trouble. For example, if a customer or supplier becomes difficult to contact or doesn’t return your calls – it’s a sure sign that there’s a problem, so get on top of it now before it gets worse.

All of these actions can give you a significant shift away from fire fighting and towards calm. However, there will be barriers that impede your progress;

If you’re already in the thick of it, investing further time to get into the detail and collect data etc. is a tough call. In my experience the “no time” excuse comes up often. I can only stress the importance of establishing a clear vision of the calm state, and breaking actions down into tiny pieces so at least some progress can be made.

More fundamental blocks often come from our personality traits, for example impatience, preferring the big picture, or wanting to stay in control (and not wanting staff members to start driving the improvements). All of these can easily block progress. Ask yourself some searching questions and make sure your personality is not the cause of your problem.

Coming from a maths and engineering background, I enjoy charting data to see trends and monitor progress, but I suspect a lot of even quite senior business leaders perceive they lack the relevant maths skills, or at least feel uncomfortable with data handling and would rather not do it.

Take courage from a foreman from my production days. He made the most progress of anyone in my team. He’d left school at 14 with no qualifications and had never even seen a computer before. He was able to grasp plotting quality data and soon found that this small piece of additional information made a huge difference to his productivity and effectiveness.

So I’d challenge anyone who claims that the kinds of analysis I’ve talked about would be beyond them. In the words of quality guru W. Edwards Deming, “you do not have to do this – survival is not compulsory”. It’s your call!

Finally and very importantly establish a 100 day plan to help focus your activities on moving up the scale towards calmness; develop the vision, work out the details of what it would take, check the reality and identify where improvements can be achieved. Keep monitoring the data and adjust the plan as you go.

Remember the key is to take action to improve the situation. Constantly fire fighting will leave you for ever in that mode. You need to put out the fire and then, crucially, stop a new one from igniting.

It’s easy to get stuck in the fire fight mode, especially if you are struggling with a lack of revenue (or profit or customers), lack of cash, lack of time, poor delivery, or people issues. Pretty much any time there is a gap between actual and planned performance it can move you in the direction of fire fight and away from calm.

Even if you’re thinking “that’s not me” – beware. It’s very easy to get knocked into fire fight mode. Any change in your business or business circumstances can push you in that direction. For example, changes in the market, the failure of a key customer or supplier, a key customer unconditionally extending payment terms, a project going off track (e.g. internal IT upgrade, or new product development), a member of staff leaving unexpectedly or experiencing extra demands outside work e.g. a young family. All of these have the potential to put you in fire fight mode.

Failure to take action on a problem in time means that the fire fight becomes a vicious spiral – as things go wrong, you’re likely to get involved in explaining to shareholders/customers/staff/spouse what’s going on and what you’re doing about it – taking up more precious time. You’re likely to feel under pressure and stressed, which further reduces your effectiveness. It can also reduce the effectiveness of your immune system, rendering your body more susceptible to colds etc, having a further negative hit. In extreme cases it can lead to nervous breakdown – something I have witnessed in the car industry on more than one occasion.

So take action now. If you are fire fighting already use these techniques to move you towards calm and if you’re lucky enough to be in the calm phase, then don’t get complacent – make plans to ensure that the unexpected doesn’t start a fire under your feet.

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Hilary Briggs is a profitable growth expert with over 15 years of industrial experience, having held senior management positions at Rover Group, Whirlpool Corporation and The Laird Group plc. For the last 10 years, she’s worked with SME’s to improve their profitability. Hilary is Managing Director of profitable growth specialists R2P Ltd.

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