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Firefighting is not Problem-solving at work

Have you ever had Déjà-Vue in a meeting because the same problem just keeps getting discussed? Someone is assigned to fix the issue and told to get it done quickly. Unfortunately, people don't want to hear that time is needed to root-cause the problem before solving it. There is never time for a lengthy deep dive to get the problem fixed. So, the person does some firefighting and reports its fixed. The problem seems resolved until it resurfaces. The truth is, the problem was simply contained, not solved, which is also called the band-aid solution.

Unfortunately, people prefer a quick fix or firefighting to stepping back and understanding the problem. There are people that just ignore the problem and create rework to compensate for it. Once the problem escalates causing other things to go wrong, someone finally yells “STOP,” and everyone starts looking into various methodologies to help solve the problem.

Companies with problem-solving capabilities in their DNA will require their employees to continuously improve upon their workload and will support them by supplying them with tools & techniques, training, and templates. These companies may do firefighting within their walls because as we all know and have lived it in our careers, stuff happens! But they don’t consider the firefighting solution as solving the problem.

These companies DO NOT believe problem-solving, and firefighting are the same thing.

Problem-solving is like Leadership where you can study the theories, even memorize the definitions, but until you master the practicality, knowing how to use the theory, when to use it, and which tool & technique to use, all you are is a walking dictionary; like Sheldon from Big Bang Theory show whose photographic memory had the DMV guidelines memorized but failed the driving test.

Once again, firefighting isn’t something that will go away because in some cases it is needed to contain the problem. What needs to be understood by people firefighting is that it’s a short-term solution, not a permanent solution to the problem. Firefighting should be referred to as the “containment of the problem.” Therefore, after firefighting for the quick fix, take the time to have a follow up discussion (or AAR), figure out exactly what is causing the problem, and develop a plan to fix the problem, so it never happens again. Without a plan, all you end up doing is firefighting the same issue repeatedly. And if that is the case, ask yourself this question: “are these recurring issues the systemic problem or are the people firefighting the same issue the systemic problem for the company?”

When it comes to problem-solving, the main steps are similar within various tools. They are:

  1. Make sure your problem is clearly understood

  2. When you have a big problem, break it down into pieces (sub-problems are easier to manage)

  3. Set a standard (or your target of where you want to be)

  4. Conduct Root-Cause Analysis to understand the causes of your problem (which can be 5 Why’s, So What’s, What if’s, etc.)

  5. Develop action log (brainstorm how to avoid the causes from recurring)

  6. Assess the actions (put the solutions you come up with to the test to ensure your solution will make the problem go away)

  7. Evaluate the results (if the test is successful, standardize; if not, go back to your root-cause analysis because something was missed.)

If the above steps seem too generic for you and you prefer getting guided in your problem-solving, then here are two great problem-solving techniques. Remember the template is only an aid to guide you, you are still the one solving the problem. So, if all you do is fill in the blanks without following the thought process behind it, even these templates won’t help you solve a problem at work. They are:

1. A3 Template (developed in Toyota utilizing PDCA / Lean)

2. Eight Disciplines model - 8D (developed in FORD)

Therefore, next time you find yourself talking about the same problem at work, remember this question: “is this problem a systemic issue or are we the systemic issue, continuously firefighting the same problem?”

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