Does Your Company Suffer from "Arsonist-Fireman Syndrome"?

Robert Reid

Why You Might Be Celebrating the Wrong Heroes

Does your company lurch from crisis to crisis? Do you celebrate the trouble shooters? If so, you might be suffering from what contributor Robert Reid calls the "Arsonist Fireman Syndrome". Here’s what it is and why it means you might be rewarding the very people who created the crisis in the first place.

Arsonist Fireman Syndrome - or AFS because we like our acronyms - is a cultural phenomenon afflicting many enterprises today. Its most prominent symptom is a focus on "firefighting" (i.e. troubleshooting a problem once it has happened) rather than "fire prevention" (i.e. preventing the problem in the first place). Causes of AFS are commonly cited as poor organizational behaviours which can include disjointedness, in-house strife, poor communication, lack of effective training and guidance, inept personnel leadership and process management, lack of ownership or understanding of responsibilities, among others.

Independently or collectively these organizational symptoms mean the afflicted organization lurches from crisis to crisis to meet basic operational needs. A "fireman" then emerges to douse the raging infernal and saves the day. The bigger the fire the more attention upper-level and executive leadership pays the fireman.

What is often lost in the analysis is that the person putting out the fire is also often the same person who caused the crisis it in the first place by lack of timely planning and execution of their duties, or lack of vision to prevent the current or future problem(s). The Arsonist Fireman and the related syndrome is the result of this cycle.

Do you celebrate the fireman or those who prevented a fire?

Do you recognize any of these characteristics? If so, ask yourself this: How is the Continuous Process Improvement (CPI) expert/team often viewed or characterized within your organization? I have personally witnessed organization cultures that are so captivated by the crisis management mode that improvements yielding literally millions of dollars in savings can go largely unrecognized. In fact, often people at all (or at least most) levels of the organization are too "busy" to even grasp the mechanics of the improvement driving the savings.

So how do we shift this paradigm? In general, optimal solutions start with understanding, facilitating execution, and ensuring continuity. When a solution is intended to dramatically change human behaviour it is also necessary to satisfy the all important WIFM ("What’s In It For Me?").

The following affords a high-level roadmap to chart your organization’s shift in culture from an Arsonist Fireman Syndrome to a Transformative Improvement focused organization:

Leadership buy-in and engagement:

Transformation requires a strong understanding and execution of the role as an Executive Champion (the head of the organization – this can’t be delegated). A "Charismatic Leadership" style is most beneficial to generate excitement and engagement in a cultural shift. One of the most important responsibilities of an Executive Champion is to receive bad news well. The bad news is there is a delta (gap) between how the executive believes the organization operates and how it does in reality. Being able to analyze and accept the findings with a forward (i.e. future) instead of a reward (i.e. past) focus is of paramount importance to gain the trust of subordinates to be truly transparent. Any lack of transparency is a tremendous source of waste; ultimately, the burden to develop a system of transparency rests with the Executive Champion.

Make your company focused on preventing rather than fighting fires

Top-down and Bottom-up balance:

Many organizations endeavour to transform to a Continuous Process/Performance Improvement culture (CPI), yet they fail to gain meaningful balance throughout the organization. Guidance and support needs to flow down while problems and "solutions" flow up. It is the "solution" part that many well intended organizations struggle with. The rationale is that the smart people are at the top so they should provide the solution; this is the conventional wisdom that is often the genesis for a need of improvement in the first place. Solutions need ownership at the process level, which supports the passion and continuity of effort required for sustainment (even when no one is looking). If the solution is needed to be derived from collaboration, the credit should still be conveyed to the process level. In this manner the all important delta between what the Executive Champion believes is happening and what is really happening at the process level will see a meaningful reduction while increasing transparency.

Daily Behaviour:

Behaviours to encourage and cultivate become much more obvious as the organization’s leadership engagement and overall transparency is increased. Thoughts, concerns and solutions shed light on vision, purpose and objectives during CPI events and debriefs that are inclusive of all levels of the organization and external stakeholders. In this environment, personnel maturity, commitment and understanding grow exponentially faster than in an environment focused solely on lag measures (which is itself another characteristic of the Arsonist Fireman Syndrome). Lag measures are important, but "Lead" measures and understanding how to favourably influence them are the origins of an improvement focused organization.

Again, this is merely a snapshot of a roadmap to cultural transformation. Nevertheless, whether this is a review and reminder or a fresh perspective, organizations need to take a critical and honest look to ascertain if the Arsonist Fireman Syndrome is embedded in their culture.