A Firefighting Culture

In honor of October being Fire Prevention Month (at least here in the USA), I’d like to talk about firefighting.

“We have a firefighting culture.”

“We spend all of our time fighting fires.”

We have all heard (and sometimes made) these statements. But I would like to take a couple of minutes and look at what real firefighters do.

They don’t just run in and spray water everywhere in an effort to “do something.”

They study fire. They seek to understand how fires start, how they burn, how they spread. They understand the interactions between fire, air, the specific environment (building structure, outdoor terrain, etc).

They develop a plan to attack the fire. They make themselves reasonably sure that if they do (a), (b), and (c) that the fire will respond in a predictable way.

They execute the plan.

They watch the results. If the fire behaves the way they predicted it would, they continue with the plan. If something unexpected happens, they pause their thinking long enough to understand what additional factor may be at play; what they might not have known or considered. They seek to understand the situation whenever something is going differently than what they predicted.

They adapt the plan to account for the new information or the changed circumstances.

They continue to do this until the situation is under control, and the fire is out.

While doing these things, they work methodically. They verify success at each step of the plan – they do not move ahead of their confirmed progress (which would put fire behind them and block their escape route).

While theirs is a dangerous business, they do not, as a matter of course, put human life in jeopardy simply to save property. Heroics are reserved for saving the lives of others.

Once the fire is out, the fire investigators arrive. They seek to understand how this fire started. Where did fuel, oxygen and a source of ignition come together and how? What fire suppression mechanisms failed, and why? How, why, did it spread? Did containment fail? This information is incorporated into the knowledge base of the society in general in the form of regulations, building codes, electrical codes – countermeasures.

In short – firefighters relentlessly follow PDCA.

Now, I must admit that, occasionally, in the excitement of the moment, firefighters get ahead of themselves, or rush into something they don’t fully understand. We usually know when this has happened because there are somber processions and bagpipe music. But even then, they seek to understand what happened, why, and improve their process to prevent recurrence.

Now, the next time you say “All we do is fight fires” consider the above. My guess is that you aren’t fighting anything. Rather, you are running around, making a lot of noise, but tomorrow the building is still burning – just in a different place.

Don’t forget to check your smoke alarms and change the batteries!

Be sure to read the follow-on post here: http://theleanthinker.com/2011/01/17/firefighting-kata/

3 thoughts to “A Firefighting Culture”

  1. This is one of the best essays I’ve seen on PDCA. Perfect analogy and one that everyone I work with (and for) can relate to. Thanks!

  2. Just stumbled on your work here and given it the time it deserves. Very impressed by the simple clear language and analogy that fit directly with your byline – “Thoughts and Insight from the Shop Floor”.

    This is a powerful analogy and I have been thinking many of us using the “firefighting” tag have actually been doing fire fighters a disservice. With only minor experience of being a firefighter I know fully that it is not simply about putting out the next one, there is considerably more to it and the linking of PDCA to continually improving their responsiveness and effectiveness is much more appropriate for those in this profession.

    Well done, will be certain to call by again and plan to let more folk in on the insights you are providing here for our thinking.

    Thanks and keep it up.

    Mike NZ

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