Fires typically result from friction between intra-company groups. They can also breakout between the company and its key customers, particularly in the B2B (business-to-business) environment, where a company and its customers are more partner-like than transaction based (as with B2C).
The larger the organization, the more individual parties are involved, the more likely collective friction will grind overall performance down significantly. If you’re over 13 years old, you’ve probably already noticed this. If your parents have conflicting guidance (rushing to pack the car for a trip?), the overall progress can just halt. Odd, that as we get older, nothing changes it seems…
The challenge in many cases, is that the individual teams working toward a (supposedly) common goal, each have their own objectives.
Use the example of an automotive supplier trying to solve a major challenge with its service at a major automotive company (OEM). The supplier will have a Quality group that may be at odds with the Engineering team, which is itself at odds with Manufacturing. Finally, as a result of internal friction, the supplier itself it working to address challenges within the OEM and it’s own internal groups.
The Quality group isn’t satisfied that the parts meet the latest specifications. Engineering is grappling with the OEM’s demands for urgent change (the OEM itself struggling to put out ‘its’ own fires). And, of course, Manufacturing feeling caught in the middle—Engineering making changes that are hard to accommodate, while getting pushback from Quality as well.
This discussion, while set in business context, is equally applicable to our personal lives. As Alan E. Shelton points out in Awakened Leadership, even though we tend to act as though we lead two separate lives, they’re really one in the same. The more we resist that fact, the more stress we have overall (anyone fighting a life|work balance? Anyone?).
These kinds of friction abound everywhere. They’re incredibly common. Even the best-run organizations encounter them from time to time, or perhaps by nature of their own business markets. The drive to minimize these issues contributes to the popularity of Agile in the software world.
There are a range of reasons these fires are allowed to continue. One common reason stems from a lack of effective over-arching leadership, someone able to stay atop it all, helping shepherd everyone toward a common goal.
If everyone becomes to myopic, focused on their own day-to-day demands, it is easy to forget the big picture needs to have over-arching priority. What are you trying to accomplish here? For instance, the goal of a Quality Assurance group (an example, not picking on any one group) is not to ensure statistical process control numbers are met. That’s just a method to their madness;).
No, the goal is to help ensure the organization, as a whole, delivers products and services to the customer as expected, preventing unpleasant surprises.
Quite often, putting out fires, simply comes down to strong, broad and positive—effective—communication amongst all involved. I have referred to the process as herding cats, each with different objectives, toward a common goal.
What are we here for? What are we trying to accomplish here? If you can’t answer in a sentence or two, odds are you don’t really know, and need to figure it out.