I was working with a client recently in a team meeting when one of the participants got a phone call, bolted up, apologized for the sudden departure and left the room. His reason - a big "fire" was underway and he was needed to help put it out. For the life of me I'll never understand this. In most businesses we place so much value on people who can conduct a "turn around" or who are "fire fighters" but we constantly don't invest in people or value people who predict or avoid fires.
It seems to me our priorities are all wrong. We've built several generations of managers who are almost completely reactive, and who are rewarded for reacting quickly. I suspect that given the chance, many managers would be happy to do little proactive work and would only respond to problems once they become big and hairy. Perhaps all of us should be issued a set of boots, fire proof clothing and one of those cool fire fighter hats when we join our organizations.
What's wrong with investing in the skills and foresight necessary to avoid fire fighting and avoid the problems or perhaps even predict them and put programs in place to not merely avoid the future fires but be prepared to take advantage when our competitors get caught short, but we don't. I can't wrap my head around this - a small investment in a few people constantly scanning the near term future and identifying potential problems, challenges or roadblocks would dramatically reduce the number of fires. Fire fighting is difficult, costly and means the firm is simply trying to react to catch up to some shift in the market or some problem. This means it's an investment on top of a previous investment, so fighting fires is expensive and doesn't necessarily place the firm in a better position going forward.
Look at the problems at Toyota right now with the sticky accelerator. Even though the designs may have been bad, if Toyota had done a better job recognizing the problems at the outset and planning and reacting at that point, rather than stalling and waiting until the problem became a "fire fighting" exercise, they'd have a much better outcome. Clearly in this case it may have been difficult to predict the problem and avoid it, but scanning the feedback and watching the trend lines would have had them reacting much faster.
I think much of this is cultural. For some reason we believe that sweeping in and fixing a problem has more drama, and gains more attention, than doing the work to predict and avoid problems. Perhaps we've trained people to believe that reacting to problems after they've occurred is more valuable than avoiding or predicting problems in advance. In our culture we dislike people who predict negative consequences in the future, even if they are right, yet celebrate people who fight fires that could have been easily prevented. Perhaps we need to place more emphasis on who missed the signals that led to the problem, and place less emphasis on fire fighting and more on strategic vision.