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Discovering methods to help break the fire-fighting cycle.

The solution to this time consuming problem should be formalized. That is, the manager should go through a step-by-step formal decision-making process, and develop formal procedures to improve the situation.

"That is a good idea, but I haven't got time." "I'm too busy." How many times have you heard managers make these statements? How often have you made them yourself? Is it because you are in a crisis management or fire-fighting cycle? That is, are you so buried with operational details or problems that you do not have time to manage, to improve, to plan to control?

If you are caught in the fire-fighting cycle, the cycle can be broken. The time pressure can be reduced. Using a systematic approach, the crisis management or fire fighting cycle can be stopped. This systematic approach has been used successfully a number of times. The most striking was with the president of a small tire sales and service company. His working time was cut from an average of over 60 hours a week to less than 30 hours a week. Incidentally, during this time his sales doubled and profit tripled. Not all of the gain was due to the technique. He employed other principles.

Breaking the cycle

To break the fire-fighting cycle the manager must engage in two different types of behaviors. First, the number of problems demanding the manager's immediate attention must be reduced. Second, the problem-solving approach of the manager should be changed. The tire company president mentioned earlier accomplished this transition in about nine months with the guidance of a consultant.

To reduce the number of immediate problems, the following step by step process has been successful:

Step one

The manager should identify the problems most frequently demanding time. Note, this is the most frequently occurring problem, not the problem requiring the most managerial time. The reason for choosing the most frequently occurring problem is dual. First, when the frequency of the occurrence of the problem is reduced, the manager will note a reduction in pressure. The manager will feel fewer demands, and will feel, therefore, that the approach is working. Second, interruptions are a double waste of time. The interruption itself costs time. It also takes additional time to reorientate the mind set to the original activity and to review where you were in that activity.

After the most frequently occurring problem has been identified, the manager should either:

* Prevent the problem from occurring;

* Significantly reduce the frequency of the problem;

* Routinize the solution to the problems (develop a policy or procedure) so it can be delegated; or

* Simplify the problem or its solution so it can be delegated to a subordinate to handle.

When the most frequently occurring problem has been prevented, simplified or routinized, and a solution found, the manager may test the solution for a period of time to gain confidence in the solution. Once the solution has become a part of the expectations the second step should begin.

Step two

Identify the problem most frequently demanding time. This second step is a repeat of the first step. It has been identified separately because experience has indicated that the second step is extremely important and a simple direction to repeat the first step is not strong enough to indicate its importance.

It may be advisable to repeat the frequent problem identification and solution a third or fourth time, but that determination should be made by the manager depending on the severity of the disruptive influences.

Step three

Identify the most time-consuming activity in which the manager engages. This is probably the most time-effective step to break the cycle. However, it is placed third in the sequence because had it been placed first it probably would not work as well, and if it did work well, the successful manager would feel so relieved they would not complete the entire process. This step alone will not break the fire-fighting cycle.

After the most time-consuming activity has been identified, the manager should properly analyze the problem and causes, develop possible solutions and complete the problem solving process.

The solution to this time consuming problem should be formalized. That is, the manager should go through a step-by-step decision-making process, and develop formal procedures to improve the situation.

Do not expect to eliminate the problem. Set your expectations to reduce the problem's frequency or severity or to routinize the problem enough that its solution can be delegated. Do not expect too much from this step or the remainder of the program may be jeopardized.

These type problems usually occur less frequently than others but have more of an impact on organizational effectiveness. What is necessary to break the crisis cycle is to give the manager time to implement the next steps in the corrective process.

The first three steps are intended to start breaking the crisis cycle. These first three steps will make the manager aware that the crisis management cycle can be broken. They reduce interruptions, free time, help to reduce stress and permit the manager to begin to feel in control of the job. They also help the manager develop successful techniques for solving repetitious and time-consuming problems. The remainder of the techniques for breaking the crisis or fire-fighting cycle are related to the process of behavior change, which is directed toward preventing the crisis or fire-fighting cycle from developing.

Step four

When a problem arises, make two decisions, not just one. The first decision should be a considered action to solve the immediate problem, not a quick fix to push the problem back to acceptable levels.

The second decision should be a conscious effort to prevent the problem from recurring. It is imperative that both decisions be made.

In a crisis or fire-fighting situation, the temptation is to observe a problem, make a quick, familiar decision to solve the problem and then move on to the next problem. Generally, this "quick fix" does not solve the problem, it just returns the situation to its previous, barely acceptable state. This pattern of action may be efficient in the short run, but it intensifies and perpetuates the crisis or fire-fighting cycle in the long run.

To break the cycle requires conscious effort. The manager should keep a record of the problems that have required two decisions and the actions taken. Since this step involves a behavior change, the record is a significant aid to assure that you practice the entire process. It also reminds you of the successes you have achieved.

Step five

Identify the important activities in which the manager must engage; activities that cannot be delegated. The importance of cataloguing the activities the manager should accomplish is to assure the activities are accorded proper time and effort and to prepare for the prioritizing of the activities. Too many managers, especially in crisis or fire-fighting situations, spend too much time handling immediate, highly visible problems rather than the important or high priority problems. Priority setting is necessary to assure the manager spends his/her time on important matters rather than less important, but immediate, visible annoyances.

The manager should identify the activities in which he/she must engage. They should be written. These should then be prioritized. The manager should review his/her progress periodically.

Steps six through eight are a series of suggestions that further reduce the time pressure on a manager. Use only those steps with which you feel comfortable.

Step six

Do not rely on your memory. Keep a written record of appointments and responsibilities. Catalogue them. Several techniques that have been demonstrated as helpful to various administrators are listed below:

* Daily Calendar -- Know when meetings are scheduled and what they are about. Prepare for the meetings. It will take less time and the meetings will be more effective. List when known interruptions will occur. Plan around them. Also list report due dates and other regularly scheduled activities. This prevents deadlines from slipping up on you and creating a crisis.

* Agenda -- A list of activities to accomplish. This is not a "Must Do Today" list, but a real agenda. Items on an agenda can be postponed to the next meeting (or next day) if necessary.

* Make Notes -- these notes are for reminders. It is good to use them in conjunction with:

Tickler files -- a monthly or daily file for the future. Folders are titled for each month and numbered from one to thirty-one. Items are placed in the monthly file and then for the current month broken down ascending to the proper date. The current file is checked daily.

People files -- folders for people with whom you meet regularly - jot down the idea, put it in their file, and discuss it when you meet with them. They do not interrupt you or them.

Activity files -- folders for major activities or projects to hold idea or reminder notes. Keeps important ideas from slipping your mind.

Step seven

Plan your activities.

* Start the day with a planned activity. This reduces the delay in getting started, a major time waster.

* Start with an activity you do not like. Get it out of the way. This eliminates procrastination and permits you to get on to more desirable activities.

* Do the important first. Do not get caught up in the immediate; do the important.

* Train your subordinates. A manager may do a job because it is quicker and easier than training a subordinate. This is a short-term time saver, but a long-term time user. Once an employee is trained to do a job, she/he can do it from then on.

* Set a specific time to do routine tasks, like reviewing your mail. Do not respond to all mail immediately. This can sidetrack you from the important items. Respond only to those items not requiring a reference. Set the others aside to do as prioritized.

Step eight

At the end of each day make a symbolic gesture to emphasize, "I am finished." Clean your desk or lock your office door. Do something to symbolically signal the mind and emotions that "I am finished." This gives you a sense of completion and a release from the pressure of the job. It is a stress reducer.


When you have begun to get things under control, take home only work that you like to do or choose to do. Do not take home work with a tight deadline. This only extends your stressful period. If you follow the suggestions above, there will be fewer tight deadlines. That is what breaking the crisis or fire-fighting cycle is all about.

James Buckenmyer, DBA, is dean of the college of business and professor of management at Southeast Missouri State University. He earned his Ph.B. in commerce from Notre Dame, an M.B.A from the University of Toledo, a communications M.A. from Governors State University and a Management and Organization Behavior DBA from Washington University.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Institute of Industrial Engineers, Inc. (IIE)
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Author:Buckenmyer, James A.
Publication:Industrial Management
Date:May 1, 1993
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