The Fireman Principle

This is a post that I put out under another blog I write, which gets NO hits. So I will subject you to it now. Originally posted at The Adventures of the Invisible Man

We all have these types of days …

The director of operations sticks their head in your office and asks for a statistical analysis of last quarters trends and they need it by the end of the day.

So you drop the normal days work to get on this task.

30 minutes later the director of personnel knocks on the door and needs a report on training for the past year and who is behind. Oh, and they need it by the end of the day.

This is when the stress starts building.

You can let it start to overwhelm you, frustrating you to the point of stagnation.

“Why are they waiting until the day it’s due to let me know this is needed?”, you ask. “They had to know this was going to be something required before today!”

This is probably true, but letting it get to you is not going to help the situation is it? The bottom line is that two director level staff, both of who you report to, have asked for items only you are above to provide and they both need them. Now.

No amount of planning and design can account for all emergencies. They are going to happen, and they are going to happen all at once. Even in the example, you can think to yourself that this will not happen again so I will PLAN on them needing this information ongoing and build a report while I am working on it now so that the next time all I have to do is click a button.

And they will never request it again …

Most, and I emphasize “most”, managers do not do this on purpose. They are under pressure as well from the people above them. They dislike last-minute requests and emergencies just as much as you do, no matter how it appears at the time. Working for a local government agency, as I do, this can happen due to one phone call from an irate citizen that managed to get through to a commissioner. That’s all it takes for the bomb to go off.

I have worked for non-profits and government for my entire career, with the exception of three years in a hospital setting (which has its own issues. Think normal business people have scattered brains? Trying working with doctors for a while.). As I have worked at these places I started thinking of these projects, and how to manage them, as The Fireman Principle™.

The Fireman Principle™ is the practice of not just putting out the fire but learning which fire to attack first. This can be determined by a few factors:

  • Location
  • Cost
  • Front Facing Factor™
  • Resources

What do all these mean? In a normal firehouse setting multiple calls can be received at once. In a larger city this can be handled a little easier because (a) the locations tend to be closer together, and (b) the number of resources (i.e. fire trucks and personnel) are greater in number. So in a large corporation, say a large insurance company, a last-minute request comes in you normally have more staff that can work through the request and better systems to handle the requests. In a small agency, however, you may be the only one working. Liken it to a small town that may only have one fire department, manned by volunteers (I imagine Steve Martin in “Roxanne”). One fire can be handled, but what of tow break out at the same time, or worse, three? How do you decide which to tackle first, knowing that whichever one you go to may result in losing the other two?

Location matters, meaning you attack the closest first. Which one is the easiest to handle and can be completed the quickest? Attack that issue, get it completed, and move to the next one. Location can also mean the one that matters the most to the well-being of you and whom you work under (not a friendly way of looking at it but a truth in the government world). The Front Facing Factor™ (FFF) is real and alive.

Take another fire analogy for example. Two calls come in at once. Both are the same distance away and you only have on truck to assign. One is a warehouse out by the tracks where the circus stores its items over the winter. The other is an orphanage with 120 children and staff.

Where do you go first?

A no-brainer right? You go to the orphanage. The FFF is higher for them than the circus.

But what if it’s the orphanage or the mayor’s house?

Still a no-brainer to most, of course, but a little stickier right?

I try to manage this issue with questions, meaning I pepper the requesting person with questions to determine the true need. What I have found, in most cases, is the request is not always as critical as being presented. I normally ask:

  • Who is this report for?
  • When is the drop dead time for receiving the report?
  • What format do they need it in (i.e. do they just need a spreadsheet or do they want graphs, explanations, detailed analysis, etc.)
  • Who am I sending it to (meaning do I provide to to the director or directly to the requester)?

It can be a hazardous road to go down. What I find most times is that the person requesting doesn’t really know what they are asking for either. They got the “urgent email or phone call” and came running to my office before asking these questions themselves. Walking them through the request brings this to light at times and forces them to examine the request themselves. Remember that they are trying to look good to someone so they feel getting it to them quickly accomplishes that, with little regard to the work it places on you. Letting them come to that realization on their own is better than telling that to them directly.

Trust me on that point.

The other question needed to be poised to them is letting them know you have other requests.

“OK this can be done but I just got a requests 30 minutes ago from Sally for a report that is needed by close of business as well. Does this take precedence over that one.”

This allows them to reassess on their own how important their requests is. Don’t assume all leadership knows what the others are doing. They don’t. Ever. Saying nothing and stewing over it doesn’t help your cause and doesn’t result in good product, and causes sleepless nights. Communicate immediately when you have issues or conflicts.

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